From concrete and steel to soul: the meaning of church

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, March 21, 2007

For the past two-and-a-half years I have watched in awe as countless tons of steel, concrete and glass came together to create a new home for one of Cochrane’s oldest congregations. But it wasn’t until this past weekend that I witnessed what this church is truly all about.

As project photographer, I was on the building site south of the Bow River when, on November 14, 2004, ground was broken for Phase 1 of the St. Mary’s Church Parish Centre, an ambitious construction project designed to keep pace with our town’s rapidly growing population.

What started out as rural farm land overlooking the Bow Valley was transformed into a venue where architects, engineers, and construction crews drew plans, cleared land, dug holes, made forms, poured concrete, ran heating ducts, water pipes and electrical conduit, made more forms, put up with mud, erected steel columns, trusses, and the bell-tower framework, etc., until the last bricks were laid, the windows and doors hung, the interior finishing done, the bells raised into the tower, and the utilities connected.

And at virtually every stage in the construction I took thousands of photographs of a building that grew architecturally more impressive every day.

But something vital was missing, and often after a photo shoot at the site, I returned home feeling spiritually cold. If this was to be a house of God, I asked myself, how could these feelings be justified?

It wasn’t till the past week leading up to the first worship services in the new building on March 17 and 18 that I began to understand my emotions.

At last the 650 chairs long in storage, along with the imposing inlaid altar and ambo, were set up in the Parish Hall, the worship area for the next few years till Phase 2, the church Assembly Area, is completed. Office furniture was placed in the Administration Wing. Other chairs, tables and throw rugs were arranged around the periphery of the large social Gathering Area. Beautiful pews, altar and ambo were brought into the Day Chapel. Hand-braided leather pull ropes were attached to the bells in the tower. Artwork was hung on walls or mounted in display cases. Children’s artwork, in particular, was featured on part of the great curved wall along the Gathering Area, much as if this were a family’s fridge door.

And then the tabernacle, the sacred place where the Blessed Sacrament is reserved, was brought into the Day Chapel, a red vigil candle placed next to it, and off to the side, a rack of votive candles arranged.

Fr. Fred Monk, pastor of St. Mary's Church, delivered the homily at the first Sunday Mass in the new facilities March 18. Photo by Warren Harbeck

Finally, the people, both St. Mary’s parishioners and visitors, began arriving, 1,100 or so in all for the two weekend Masses. At these Masses we expressed our gratitude to God for the new building, and recommitted ourselves to Him in word, song, Sacrament and silence. Then we gathered for coffee in a social space so large that all of us at each Mass could fit in comfortably at one time and enjoy community together in ways never before possible.

And in the warm glow of that weekend experience, I came to realize afresh that the building without the Presence and the people could never be anything more than a cold shell, no matter how impressive. It would be only a body without a soul.

But now the new facilities had soul, something nearly impossible to capture with a camera, but clearly discerned by the heart. The church had moved in at last.

© 2007 Warren Harbeck

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