St. Anthony Catholic Church at 318 Benton Blvd. has been undergoing updates and renovations by the dedicated and resourceful congregation for the past three years in preparation for the building’s centennial in 2022.
The church has long been a staple of life for so many in the Northeast neighborhoods. Assumption Parish was established by Bishop John Hogan on August 15, 1909, in a rented building at 3423 Garner St., later moved to a private home at 3425 Garner. On December 8, 1910, Bishop Thomas Lillis dedicated a frame and stucco church at 3210 Lexington Ave. This location was used until the present church at 309 Benton was completed in 1927.
The cornerstone was laid for Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Catholic Church on October 13, 1922. Nearly 3,000 people attended, according to parish records. The parish planned to build a church, school, auditorium, priest’s residence, sisters’ residence and heating and ventilating plant.
Architect Chester Dean, of White and Dean, combined the Romanesque and Mission architecture being used by the Park Department in designing the Concourse, northwest of the church. Father Micael Lyons, pastor from 1916 to 1944, served as general contractor, and at the time, it was calculated that each rock cost $1.65, each brick $0.09, and the building itself would cost about $0.35 per cubic foot.
Fifteen leaded glass windows depicting various scenes from the New Testament from Munich, Germany, were installed, and then restored in preparation for the 75th anniversary in 1984. The exterior stone was sourced from seven different states, including from Carthage, Mo.
According to parish records, “One of the parishioners recalled that the people of the parish finished with their bare hands the cement in the interior walls. One can see the swirls of their fingerprints.”
Upon completion, the new 4,000-square-foot church had a capacity of 450. The cruciform building consisted of a church and school, with the school occupying the two arms of the cross in five classrooms. The sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet served the Assumption parish school from 1913 to 1970, starting with approximately 60 students and rising to nearly 300 by 1951. So, the parish decided to build a school on two lots east of the church, and in 1954, the new building was dedicated.
In 1967, a major renovation and repair project of the church was approved, costing $45,000. The renovation included concrete work around the church and school buildings, refinishing pews, and a complete renovation of the sanctuary.
By 1970, the Catholic schools of Northeast faced consolidation, and the closing of the convent. In the end, 470 students attended classes on two campuses: grades one through five at Assumption, and grades six through eight at St. Stephen’s. The Assumption school eventually closed in 1981, and students were consolidated into St. John’s Tri-School.
In preparation for the centennial, Father Andres Moreno and his congregation have been doing work on the building in phases. The first, repairing the roof and its copper domes, was completed three years ago.
“We began with the roof, replacing some of the tiles and fixing the whole underlayment of the roof because it was bad and it was letting water come into the church,” Moreno said. “And most of the walls were ruined, the painting was ruined by the water. It was smelly, the carpet was bad, so many things.”
Last year, they were able to accomplish the second phase, repairing and painting all the walls that had water damage. A new mural was commissioned on the ceiling of the sanctuary.
“I think the painting to me was kind of the biggest upgrade to the building,” Moreno said. “It gave kind of a strong look to a building that is historical, the colors are very solid, the red, the gold. It kind of made it magnificent, like magnified what was already there.”
Earlier this year, the congregation fundraised for a prayer garden on the southwest corner of the building.
“And then the third phase, which we just finished, was new flooring, and then refinishing the pews,” Moreno said. “And everything is in preparation for the centennial year, starting October 16, 2022.”
The entire sanctuary floor was replaced with gray, brown and white marble, and the 40 pews were refinished by hand by members of the congregation.
“The pews were redone by all people, mostly from the Hispanic community – but some of the people from the Anglo community, they came too – but the whole community,” Moreno said. “I describe it as a whole thing, you know, it’s a whole event. Most of the people did the pews, sanded – it was like a long process for us – then stained it and then put this lacquer on it.”
The floor, while not by members of the congregation, was redone by a company from the Hispanic community in Kansas City that was able to give the parish a good price, Moreno said.
Now that the building is complete, Moreno is focusing on preparing the hearts of his community.
“This coming year we’re just going to prepare the people – you know, gatherings and having benedictions, talks – and kind of share time with the community, with the family of St. Anthony in order to prepare the hearts of the people for the celebration of the centennial,” Moreno said.
The updates complement the historic structure, giving it a clean and refreshed feel. On Friday night, as 21 students walked through their confirmation services that would happen the next day, their families marveled at the space, which had been closed for five weeks during construction. During that time, masses were held in the basement auditorium.
At Sunday’s masses, Moreno requested everyone dress in white as a symbol of their fresh start. They celebrated with hymns, special readings, and flowers on the altar. Children dressed as saints, in place of modern Halloween costumes, in celebration of All Saints’ Day on November 1.
“Since I arrived here, I have the tradition during Halloween that instead of promoting Halloween with horrible masks and those things, I just tell them it is good to have the kids dress like saints in order to promote more the life of the saints,” Moreno said. “And instead of calling it Halloween, we say ‘Holy wings.’ It’s kind of promoting how we become saints in heaven since we are celebrating the day before All Saints Day.”
Moreno said attendance at the English mass at 9 a.m. hovers around 300, but for both Spanish masses, at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m., the sanctuary is usually packed with 350 or 400.
“I think the only big thing that I am trying to accomplish with the whole community is to have the theme for the parish, for the centennial, and to move forward in the future with the history of salvation of this community, is that we are all under the cross,” Moreno said. “As you see, the shape of the church is the shape of a cross and then the cross is painted on the ceiling of the church, that’s why I said we’re all underneath the cross. That really makes it meaningful for each one of us. As you know, Jesus is always telling us, ‘Take up your cross and follow Me,’ and then you become a disciple. I think that’s the main theme I want to take and kind of share with the community.”
While there’s no more physical work to do on the building in preparation for the centennial, the soon-to-be 100-year-old building needs regular maintenance and upkeep.
Moreno calls the building Grandfather, since it’s been grandfathered in on so many building codes and policies that have been put in place since it was built.
“It makes you kind of appreciate more the whole picture of the church, the building, the altars, the windows and everything all together,” Moreno said. “It’s impressive how in the history of this building, the windows came from Munich, Germany, and that’s amazing. You see the stained glass windows, they’re very colorful, very beautiful. It is something different than in other places.”
The Jubilee Year, a period of time when the congregation prepares themselves and their space for the centennial celebration, opened on October 17.
“We are planning to have different events in preparation for the centennial, which is tied with the whole fixing of the church, and then the celebration next year,” Moreno said.