MALAKOFF – Like the phoenix of myth, Mary Queen of Heaven Church in Malakoff has risen from the ashes.
The original church, a former sewing factory purchased and renovated by the Malakoff Catholic community in 1996, was ravaged by fire on April 25, 2013, after an SUV crashed into the building and ignited. The fire started in the sacristy, in which the vehicle was imbedded, and spread into the attic. Local fire departments were able to extinguish the blaze, but not before extensive damage was done.
The building was declared a loss, and the community of Mary Queen of Heaven was left homeless.
The tragedy set parishioners on a long and often difficult journey fraught with shock, sorrow, and frustration, struggles with insurance companies and gratitude for the generosity of fellow Malakoff citizens, dislocation at having lost a home and the process of planning and raising funds to build a new one.
But on Jan. 29, that long journey came to an end as Bishop Joseph E. Strickland dedicated the new Mary Queen of Heaven Church, splashing holy water on walls and furnishings, anointing the altar and walls with the oil of chrism, and sending prayers of thanksgiving aloft on fragrant clouds of incense. Dedication Photo Album >>>
After four years of celebrating Mass in a Methodist church, a high school gym, and rented trailers, the people of Mary Queen of Heaven were home.
Calling up to him the children of a community baptized in fire for the first part of his homily, Bishop Strickland explained to them how dedicating their new home mirrored their own baptism with water.
“We washed the church (with the sprinkling of holy water) just as you were washed at baptism,” he told the youngsters. “We treat this building like a person, like the body of Christ, because it houses the body of Christ. So it has been washed as you were washed in your baptism. And in a while, we will anoint the building, and then we will light the candles and bring the light of Christ, just like at your baptism. After today, you might talk to mom and dad or your grandparents and say, ‘Let’s look at the baptism rite,’ because, really, we walk through the same celebration for this whole building this morning.”
He drew their attention to the altar.
“This altar, this beautiful wooden altar, is really just a piece of furniture today. But you’ll notice that I will anoint it with chrism, the same that you were anointed with at your baptism and, for some of you, at confirmation,” he said. “This altar is anointed with chrism because it is a symbol of Christ. That’s why we will treat it with reverence from today forward.”
And, once anointed and consecrated, the altar would become the center of the most important point in the dedication rite, and of every Mass celebrated in the new church from that moment on.
“Bread and wine will become the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ,” Bishop Strickland said. “What we will do on this altar in just a few moments – take this bread, it is my body; take this wine, it is my blood – we do in our Catholic faith because Christ told us to. And that is the main purpose of this building. Long before there were beautiful churches, the people of God, just like us, gathered, because Jesus, the Son of God, asked us to gather.”
After dismissing the children and turning his attention to the adults in the congregation, Bishop Strickland continued drawing parallels between the church building and the human person.
“As I said to the children, all of us need to tune in, to see this building treated as a person, because the human person is the most sacred presence in our world,” the bishop said. “We need to remember that. We need to live that.
“Thank God for our Catholic faith,” he said. “For all these centuries, and especially in recent years with so much pushing against us, we still proclaim that life is sacred from conception to natural death. We will never let go of that truth, because to let go of even an aspect, even a jot or a tittle, of that truth, begins to erode what life is. This place exists because of the sacredness of the human person.
“In the letter to the Ephesians (the second reading at the dedication Mass), Paul reminds the people in Ephesus and reminds us that we belong to the family of God,” Bishop Strickland said. “From our baptism sacramentally, and from the moment of our conception, in God’s plan we are his. Our life is sacred because we are of the family of God. That’s the whole reason for this beautiful liturgy this morning, in which in few minutes we will take bread and wine in the ancient eucharistic rite, and it becomes Christ’s body and blood. Christ comes here, the human person that he is, as well as God’s son in that mystery, fully God and fully man, and he dwells here with this community of Mary Queen of Heaven.”
He also drew attention to the significance of dedicating the new Mary Queen of Heaven Church in the year 2017 – 100 years after the apparition of Our Lady of Fatima in 1917.
“Go back and revisit what Our Lady said at Fatima,” he urged. “Just like all you mothers and grandmothers, she said, ‘Kids, straighten up. Get it right.’ She said that a hundred years ago. She warned in the most loving way a mother can that we must turn from the darkness and sin of this world and embrace our life, our destiny, in Jesus Christ. We still have a long way to go; maybe we’ve slipped back a little way. But we never despair as the body of Christ. We simply take up our cross and live our destiny in Jesus Christ.”
The people of Mary Queen of Heaven certainly have done that.
“The people are so faithful,” said Father Anthony McLaughlin, Mary Queen of Heaven pastor, of his parishioners. “One of the things I noticed was that people are very stoic. ‘We know our church burned. We’d rather it weren’t so, we’re in the temporary building, better things are ahead for us, please God, but in the meantime we all have to stand together and knuckle down and get on with this.’”
Still, he said, “it was difficult. Initially, people understood that this was going to take time. But when time kept progressing without much activity, then people got restless. With time, some people started simply going to other parishes because they had a permanent building. Some people stopped going to church altogether because it was just too challenging for them. So it was difficult.
“But once we started breaking ground in December of 2015, I think the excitement of the parish began to escalate. We had ground moving. We had construction people on site. They moved in Easter Sunday of 2016 and moved out Thanksgiving 2016. It was a great process. Once they saw light at the end of the tunnel, it really energized people. They are extremely excited by the new church. They’re very enthusiastic. And a lot of people are coming back, which is good. We need them.
“It’s a resurrection story, absolutely,” he said.
The new church – an 11,500-square foot complex including the sanctuary, office space, parish hall, classrooms, and restrooms – was designed by architect David Patterson of DWP Architects, LLC, and built by Stewart Builders, Inc. The project cost approximately $2.2 million.
The parish moved in as soon as the building was completed, though the dedication was scheduled for January to avoid further complicating the always busy Advent and Christmas seasons.
“We’ve been using the building for the past six weeks,” said McLaughlin. “That’s a little unusual. Generally, you don’t use a building until it’s dedicated. But we really had no other choice.”
For the past three and a half years, the parish has been using two trailers – one for worship, the other for office space. That left the people cramped and subject to the whims of weather.
“Every time it rained, we had ceiling tiles that would fall down,” Father McLaughlin said. “We never were able to find out where exactly the leak was. We just knew we were going to lose ceiling tiles.”
The ceiling of the new church, with its dark wood beams, should be safe from such indignities. And the people who once worshiped in a trailer now have a beautiful church.
“The parishioners are full of pride for the new building,” said Father McLaughlin. “We’re probably the most impressive building in the county. People feel a great pride in that. But it’s also a great signal of the church’s presence in Malakoff. It’s a real sign and symbol that the church is anchored there, that the cross has been planted there. Catholics feel a great pride in the building because it really speaks of the presence of God. We’ve had a lot of non-Catholics coming around to see the building, we’ve had people calling saying, ‘Congratulations, we love seeing the church in the distance.’”
Between “the beautiful crosses on the roof and the landscaping,” he said, “just the sheer beauty of it elevates people upward, and I think that’s important. The metal building was nice, but compared to what we had before this is the Cadillac of churches. It is magnificent.”
Despite the newness, though, there is also a connection with the past. Many of the liturgical furnishings – the main altar, the tabernacle, the ambo, and the Stations of the Cross – were rescued from the fire and refurbished for the new church.
“It’s great continuity,” said Father McLaughlin. “When I stand at the altar to celebrate Mass, I’m celebrating on an altar that priests have used since they were founded in 1996. That’s 21 years of Masses celebrated on that altar, 21 years of priests standing at that altar. So, too, at the ambo – 21 years of preaching – and the tabernacle – the Lord among us for 21 years. It’s lovely; it’s great continuity. People appreciate that the most, actually.
“Just like anyone who’s been through the tragedy of a house fire, anything they can salvage has great meaning for them, because it attaches them to the place they had before the fire. And so, too, one of the redeeming factors of the trailers while we were celebrating Mass there was that we were able to use our consecrated liturgical furniture. That made a big difference.”
But every new home comes with new features. Among those in the new church are the five stained glass windows depicting Glorious Mysteries of the rosary. The windows were created by Lynchburg Stained Glass out of Lynchburg, Va., the same company that designed the windows in the Chapel of Sts. Peter and Paul in Tyler.
Their beauty, however, is rivaled by another feature, one that catches the eye immediately upon entering the sanctuary.
Behind the altar hangs a copy of the painting “The Coronation of the Blessed Virgin by the Blessed Trinity,” by the Spanish artist Diego Velázquez (1559-1660) from the Spanish Golden Age. The original hangs in the Museo del Prado in Madrid.
“It’s the center of the sanctuary, above the tabernacle,” said Father McLaughlin. “The whole idea is that a church is built to honor the patron or patroness. Yes, the Lord is central, and indeed he is in the tabernacle, but above the tabernacle is the patron or patroness, in our case Mary Queen of Heaven. The painting is magnificent. It’s Our Lady being assumed into heaven, and on one side is God the Son, on the other is God the Father, and descending on the Virgin is the Holy Spirit. There is a crown resting over her head with the angelic chorus at her feet. Most people comment on it when they come into the church. It’s a real focus point.”
That isn’t at all accidental.
“The church really is a shrine to our Blessed Mother under that beautiful title Mary Queen of Heaven,” Father McLaughlin said. “I think sometimes people treat the patron or patroness as an after-thought, something very secondary, but the whole idea of a church being dedicated in honor of a saint, especially a super-saint, the patroness of saints, the first lady of Christendom, the first to be saved, I think encourages devotion in the faithful. I can see people mesmerized by the painting.
“What strikes me when I celebrate Mass there is that when I elevate the host or the chalice, it is the Lord saying, ‘This is my body, this is my blood,’ and behind him stands his mother, who at the manger, when she held Christ, could also have said to the world, ‘This is my body, this is my blood.’ It’s a perfect connection, the perfect connection.
“And Our Lady is a sign of hope,” he went on. “I think we forget that. We marbleize the Blessed Virgin, meaning that we’re simply content to see the Virgin as a stationary object made of priceless materials in our churches. But we have to remember that she is a creature, that she is the most exalted of all creatures, and that she is a model of what can happen to the creature when they remain faithful, that everything that Christ promises can be realized in them. And that’s why our Blessed Mother is there – not as some unattainable goal, but because this is what grace can do to nature. And that’s very important.”
Bishop Strickland called upon that model of faith and hope in his homily.
“May Our Lady intercede for us, nurture us, and strengthen us to follow her son,” he said. “As we continue the liturgy this morning, let us breathe it in – the incense, the aroma of the chrism, the washing of the walls, all these beautiful images that remind us of our own baptism. And let us live, as St. Paul reminds us, as those who belong to the family of God.”
>>> Listen to Bishop Strickland’s Homily