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Divine inspiration: St. Aloysius parish in Olivia restoring 'a sacred place'

I believe in divine intervention,'' said the Rev. Paul van de Crommert, pastor of St. Aloysius Catholic Church in Olivia. What is going on all around him at the Church of St. Aloysius is making it easier for others to believe too. The small, rura...

I believe in divine intervention,'' said the Rev. Paul van de Crommert, pastor of

St. Aloysius Catholic Church in Olivia.

What is going on all around him at the Church of St. Aloysius is making it easier for others to believe too.

The small, rural parish of 500 households is caretaker for one of the most beautiful and unique Catholic churches in the entire New Ulm diocese. It is known as the "Shrine of the Prairie'' for its Italian or Romanesque architecture and the celebrated art works it holds.

Even from the outside, this church stands apart. A 108-foot tall Italian bell tower or campanile tells as much.

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But it is the interior that makes the eyes of visitors widen like those of treasure hunters finding their gold. The spacious, cathedral like interior of St. Aloysius is colorful and bright in the Mediterranean tradition.

And then, there is the art. Professor Gonippo Raggi, who was known worldwide for his church art in the early part of the 20th Century, portrayed on canvas the dramatic stories of the Bible for this rural Minnesota church. He also depicted all 16 virtues. He designed these works to lead the eyes of worshippers to the vaulted ceiling some four stories above the altar.

There, the artist depicted the End of Time and the Holy Trinity at its center.

Right now, none of this is visible. Scaffolding fills the church and holds a three-story tall, temporary floor for a crew of workers from Doug Henning Restoration in St. Paul.

The workers are scrubbing away eight decades of soot and working to restore the art and repair the damage caused by water and Minnesota's weather extremes.

The church is on its way to a full fledged-restoration of the architecture and art that make it seem so divinely inspired, according to van de Crommert.

The restoration represents an act of faith in itself. These are not the easiest of times for rural, Catholic churches. Small towns are aging. The parish of St. Aloysius has fewer young families than it did in the past, said the priest.

Nor is this an affluent parish. He describes it as decidedly middle class.

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Yet the restoration now under way will cost $1.1 million to complete. The parish has raised more than $940,000 in pledges toward it to date.

It's a sacrifice for all, said the priest. Yet, since the work has started, Sunday collections have increased and church attendance has crept slowly upward.

"Stewardship is not a well you draw on,'' said van de Crommert. "It's much more of a muscle you strengthen.''

Having adopted the restoration as a cause has strengthened the sense of community within the parish, he said. Other pastors had warned him that a church restoration serves either to divide or unify a parish. This one has unified the parish.

If what is happening here seems to go against the grain of the times, or seems too improbable, well, that's the story of this church.

Its original parishioners were the sons and daughters of immigrants from Bohemia in what is now the Czech Republic. They adopted the Italian saint Aloysius Gonzaga as the patron of their church because its founding happened on the eve of his feast day, said van de Crommert.

The beauty of this church is owed to the arrival in 1907 of Father Henry Pomije. Appointed by Bishop John Ireland as pastor of St. Aloysius "for the time being,'' Father Pomije remained for 47 years.

He convinced the parishioners, most of them people of limited financial means, to build a new church of steel and concrete and marble pillars mined in Vermont.

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Pomije commissioned many of the artworks that also make this church unique, and no doubt invested all of his family's wealth in to it.

Van de Crommert said his early predecessor died penniless, but is remembered for the shrine he built on the prairie.

The task now is to do more than rescue it from the ravages of time. Along with restoring everything to its original color and grandeur, the project is taking advantage of modern technology.

Modern lighting, sound, heating and cooling will be added.

If the church could speak, van de Crommert said it would tell how the original parishioners clearly ran out of money as the church neared its completion in 1927.

In place of a small, concrete floored baptistery, the church is building a larger, tile-floored baptistery at the entrance of the church. Worshippers will be greeted with the sound of running water from a fountain in the baptistery as they enter.

Van de Crommert said the restoration work is going well. The work covers all aspects, from restoring brass chandeliers to a brilliant, golden sheen to chipping away at dusty plaster that has been too long exposed to moisture.

None of this could have been undertaken was it not for the expensive investment made earlier in restoring the exterior of the church, said the priest.

He also credits the church leaders of previous years for preserving the unique features of this building.

Its replacement value alone is calculated at between $15 million to $17 million, he said.

Yet what is really important here, according to van de Crommert, is exactly what mattered when Father Pomije convinced his parishioners to construct a church like no other on the Minnesota prairie.

They created a sacred place. A sacred place is the way to catechize or teach the faith, said the priest.

Members of the parish hope to celebrate their faith and the completion of the restoration with a visit by the Bishop of New Ulm, the most Reverend John C. Nienstedt, in September 2007.

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