An artist’s rendering of a proposed addition to the exterior of my church arrived in the mail a few weeks ago. The drawing includes a tower, which resembles a bell tower without a bell, that is called a “clerestory.” The base of this pillar is about one-fifth as wide as the front of the church and is faced in a strawberry-blond brick, which matches the church exterior. The top third, which extends above the church roof, is made of glass. Looking at it from the parking lot, the clerestory stands in front of the church, to the right of the front doors. It looks something like a beautifully refurbished box car, standing on one end, with the top third encased in glass and extending above the existing roof, and the lower two-thirds covered in brick to match the rest of the church.
Architects are recommending a vertical structure to complement the horizontal flat-roofed church and school buildings that we now have, and to distinguish this particular building from the others as a church. Oftentimes, people pass our campus on Theodore Wirth Parkway and assume it is only a school; or arrive for a funeral and are unable to discern which building is the church. There is a reason the church of St. Margaret Mary looks so little like a place of worship: it was to be a temporary church and a future gymnasium. When funds failed to materialize in later years, the gym became the permanent church.
St. Margaret Mary has been my parish for most of my life. I made my First Confession, First Communion and Confirmation there. I was married in this church and all of my children celebrated their first sacraments there. My father’s roofing and sheet metal company did some of the roofing in the early years.
I attended grades 1-8 in the adjoining school before and after the church was built. In the winter of 1959, masses were held in a basement church that doubled as the school cafeteria. If my family did not arrive for Sunday services early enough, we had to sit in folding chairs in the hallway between the cafeteria and what is now the church. It didn’t bother me to sit in the chairs, but kneeling on the linoleum floor was a killer, even for a second-grader. My mom was excused from getting on her knees because she was very pregnant with my sister, Jill, and I was very jealous because my knees hurt.
Plans for the current remodeling include such practical improvements as handicapped ramps and bathrooms to meet accessibility requirements and to meet the needs of aging parishioners, including the parents of some of my former classmates. There is also a plan to enlarge Visitation Hall, the social room now used for funeral lunches and church gatherings. When my son rose to the rank of Eagle Scout, we celebrated with a reception there.
In the fall of 1959, there was no social room. There were, instead, two third-grade classrooms and one nurse’s office occupying the space that is now Visitation Hall. The kindly, lenient Miss Kruse, who also taught music, had the room next to the church. The strict, demanding Sister Michaelene, ran a very tight ship, intimidating in her full Franciscan habit, size XL, in the room next door. The nurse’s office was smaller than many of today’s closets and equipped with a tiny table that served as a desk; as well as a cot, a toilet and a sink. It was often, if not always, manned by a parent volunteer rather than a nurse.
In other words, there were two third-grade classrooms, overflowing with students, two teachers and one parent volunteer holding a thermometer in the three rooms that have been combined to form Visitation Hall today; along with their desks, school supplies, boots and coats. It is amazing to me that the teachers kept their sanity and that any of us learned anything.
In those days, I did not know that Minnesota was a home to Swedes and Norwegians named Anderson and Andersen because my classmates were Germans with names like Mueller and Schroeder and Kleinhenz, or of Irish descent with names like Sullivan and Roddy and McPherson. The girls were named after the Blessed Virgin: Mary Ann, Mary Jo and Mary Beth. The boys were named after the apostles: Thomas and James and John. There were no African Americans or native Americans. The Nguyens and the Cabreras had not yet arrived. The Mormons in my neighborhood did not set foot in my church and I did not set foot in theirs, lest I commit a sin.
Sister Michaelene taught me so much and so well that year that I was able to coast for the next three years. Seriously, I don’t remember covering much new material until Mr. Umerski arrived in seventh grade. Because our parish was building a new church in 1959, Sister Michaelene squeezed in a whole unit with church-related words such as sacristy and pew and apse, which we learned we would not have in our new gymnasium church.
Clerestory was not on Sister Michaelene’s vocabulary list, not because she forgot it, but because it is not actually a church word. Clerestory has an architectural origin, not a religious one. It is pronounced CLEAR-story and it describes a construction rising above adjacent rooftops to let in natural light or air. The word fits in our case since the top third of the proposed tower would be made of glass, but not all clerestories involve towers. The windows or slits found at the top of railroad cars are are also called clerestories.
In truth, there will never be a clerestory at St. Margaret Mary unless parishioners donate enough money to build one. A ramp and handicapped restrooms are a necessity and a larger social room would be nice, but a clerestory is a luxury. There have been other plans in other years for other buildings, including a real church, that have never been built.
There has long been a division among the church faithful, in other parishes as well as ours, as to whether it is best to glorify God by lavishly decorating places of worship, or whether it is best to keep the worship space simple and use available funds for social causes. My guess is that that the majority of St. Margaret Mary parishioners prefer simplicity because there is nothing fancy about our gymnasium church and we have made the choice to worship there. Several beautiful Catholic churches can be found within just a few miles of St. Margaret Mary, including the truly awesome Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis, where we could spend our Sunday mornings if we so chose.
However, a clerestory would be nice. It is not really fancy, just a little bit fancier than what we now have. I can’t help but wonder that if a bit of sunshine and a breath of fresh air improve the cross country journey of the travelers riding in Amtrak train cars, wouldn’t it be possible that a bit of sunshine and a breath of fresh air might also improve the faith journey of the congregation sitting in St. Margaret Mary pews?