When Bishop Joseph Strickland asked Father James Rowland, pastor of St. Mary Magdalene in Flint, to build a church that would be the “gem of East Texas,” the priest already had a vision in mind, set in motion by the church’s founding pastor, Father Timothy Kelly.
“(Father Kelly) was the one who set the style,” Father Rowland explained. “He got the bones, the shape, the proportions, the size. I got to fine-tune the interior appearance.”
Father Rowland noted the building of a new church is unusual for most people who come from dioceses where parishes are being consolidated. But St. Mary Magdalene was to be rebuilt and expanded to include the growing population of East Texas, particularly evident in the south Tyler area. It would also be conveniently located right off Old Jacksonville Road, which will eventually develop into a six-lane road.
The dedication Mass in the new church building happened on May 7, 2023. It had an overflowing attendance, a beautiful choir, and old and new faces in the parish community. Father Kelly was in attendance with many other priests and deacons from the diocese.
“Breathtaking. That is the word that strikes me as we gather in this beautiful building,” Bishop Strickland extolled in his homily. Indeed, the grand, Romanesque church is breathtaking, like a bit of Rome transplanted into East Texas.
For the church art, Father Rowland hired Ecclesiastical Art & Design Ltd., a family affair with a history that traces back to the 1950s. Artist Ruslana Makarenko, who runs the company, worked and apprenticed in her father’s and grandfather’s studio as a child, learning color theory, composition, and gold-leafing techniques — elements that all came into play for the St. Mary Magdalene church design.
For Makarenko and her team, Father Rowland had a theological theme in mind and wanted to incorporate imagery such as the hand of God and a descending dove for the Holy Spirit. With his vision, their creative license, and nods to Texas (incorporating elements such as the state flower — the bluebonnet) the artists set to work.
“Father Rowland has been great,” Makarenko said. “He’s been very sure of what he wants, but he also gave us freedom.”
Makarenko, who is of the Ukrainian rite, noted that most Roman rite churches do not have the iconography used in St. Mary Magdalene. Iconography serves a purpose beyond the aesthetic. To Makarenko, “Our artwork is not supposed to be viewed as a gallery piece. It’s supposed to facilitate prayer.”
For Father Rowland, the art is also an opportunity to evangelize and “explain through the decoration of the church, our Eucharistic theology.”
In building a new church, one of the many challenges Father Rowland faced was keeping up the enthusiasm for support when the movement was only happening behind-the-scenes.
“We were raising the money and revising the drawings,” Father Rowland said, “and that, of course, was happening behind the scenes.” He added, “It still didn’t make sense to a lot of people until they saw dirt moving.”
It all led up to the big day of the dedication. But, when the assembly first gathered in the new building, before it was dedicated, it was not a church yet — it was just a building.
“So, the church is not a church — it’s a building that happens to have an altar,” Father Rowland explained. “But the altar has not been set aside for exclusive use of the liturgy, yet. That’s what the whole dedication ritual is about. It’s the setting aside of the altar and the building for the exclusive worship of God.”
During the dedication Mass, the church was sprinkled with holy water and the walls and altar were anointed with chrism. “The whole dedication Mass, and the ritual,” Father Rowland clarified, “it’s almost like taking the church and putting it through the sacraments of initiation … baptism, confirmation, and Eucharist.”
“But,” as Father Rowland added, “the act of actual dedication itself is the celebration of the Eucharist.”
Now that the church has been established and dedicated for worship, the old church building will serve as a parish hall. And, as was seen from the dedication Mass, the parish community is excited to embark on its new season.
“Let us remember, brothers and sisters,” Bishop Strickland said in his homily. “This place continues to be built as a house of God as more and more living stones like us are welcomed to worship here. May it proclaim the glory of God for many, many years to come.”
Originally published in the Summer 2023 edition of the Catholic East Texas.