Feast day dedication celebrates Casa’s Franciscan heritage

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SCOTTSDALE — It was a feast day like no other.

It drew Catholics of multiple ages bearing gifts of prayer, musical sound, voice, hospitality and presence. A trio of videographers and a roaming photographer captured nearly every face and angle.

The Oct. 4 celebration on the feast of St. Francis of Assisi marked a major milestone in the life of its host, the Franciscan Renewal Center. It also formally unveiled artwork inspired by the 12th-century saint himself plus other reflective pieces and building techniques that speak to the Franciscan tradition and to the Church’s eternity.

The liturgical book for the Rite of Dedication rests in the sacristy at Our Lady of the Angels, a conventual church at the Franciscan Renewal Center Oct. 4. (photo courtesy of Peter Jordan)

All of that history fit neatly into a single, but lengthy liturgy designed to dedicate a brand-new worship space that finally brought every worshipper under one roof — or any roof for that matter. Most of the Franciscan Renewal Center’s five weekend liturgies regularly had several dozen Catholics sitting on lawn chairs outside.

Franciscan Renewal Center

History of The Casa

Strategic visioning

And that was the second overflow seating area for the old chapel. At five times its original seating capacity of 60 people, the twice-expanded chapel was still far too small for today’s 2,200 families.

Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted, with the help of Franciscan priests from the Province of Saint Barbara, which includes Arizona, eliminated that challenge when they dedicated Our Lady of the Angels. The conventual church — one that resides in a diocese, but canonically belongs to another entity — easily sits 600 people with overflow capabilities welcoming another 200 guests immediately behind the pews. The 50 thin, cherry wood pews are an upgrade from the old chapel’s bucket seats.

A statue of the deacon-turned-saint almost immediately greets visitors who pull into the parking lot. The new church sits right behind St. Francis and is much closer to the street to extend a spirit of welcoming.

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The 17,000-square-foot space capped a 22-month building process that covered the globe and a good span of history. The 42-foot tall church calls to mind the Spanish colonial era mission churches that built the southwest with the round nave design hearkening a fifth-century church building tradition.

“We’re relating the building to the theology and spiritual tradition of the Franciscan Order,” explained Fr. Joe Schwab, OFM, executive director of the Franciscan Renewal Center.

(Ambria Hammel/CATHOLIC SUN)

He eagerly described the giant patronal stained-glass window that’s impossible to miss during a daytime or nighttime cruise along Lincoln Drive. Its antique glass on modern square panels were produced in Germany by Derrix Glass Studio, known as the papal glass masters of Northern Europe.

The abstract imagery, nearly as tall as the church, depicts Our Lady of the Angels gracefully floating between earth and the heavens illuminating the Assumption. A DNA helix hearkens the Annunciation with her posture reflecting the Immaculate Conception, one who was conceived without sin and therefore ready to carry God in her body.

Other stained-glass windows of various smaller sizes thoughtfully decorate the rest of the church. One depicting the Nativity sits behind the altar at eye level when seated in a pew. There the Nativity comes to life in an almost filmstrip fashion. Pieces of hay are built into the stucco below it.

The Nativity, an imagery St. Francis himself inspired, is depicted in abstract stained glass — and hay — behind the altar. (photo courtesy of Peter Jordan)

St. Francis at Greccio was the one who helped “enflame the hearts of people with love for the Child of Bethlehem,” Fr. Schwab told some 400-500 faithful in closing remarks at the end of Mass. To that end, the stained-glass window behind the tabernacle resembles a fire’s glow to call to mind that, having received the Eucharist, the Church calls Catholics to be a beacon of light in the world.

Fr. Joe Schwab, OFM, executive dorector of the Franciscan Renewal Center, highlights some of the history leading to the Oct. 4 dedication of Our Lady of the Angels conventual church at the Franciscan Renewal Center in what he calls a “Pergamena,” a term the Order of Franciscans used for a celebratory document. (photo courtesy of Peter Jordan)

More than 1,300 individuals and families contributed gifts of various sizes to build Our Lady of the Angels. That included a woman living in her car who pitched in $1.

“She wanted to see a beautiful church in honor of Mary,” Fr. Schwab recalled. “Of course, we helped her out with more than what she gave us.”

With that small encounter, long before the church was built, a prayer that Bishop Olmsted read during the dedication rite was already fulfilled: “Here may the poor find justice, the victims of oppression true freedom.”

Fr. Schwab is looking forward to seeing the people of God, both old friends and new ones, gather to listen to God’s word and sit at Christ’s table. Bishop Olmsted offered a similar prayer during the dedication rite. He also consecrated the altar with holy oil, sent out Franciscan priests to anoint church walls and rejoiced as lay members lit dedication candles and dressed the altar area for the first time.

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The San Damiano Cross

Franciscan churches might feature the San Damiano Cross in place of the crucifix. Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted reflected on its imagery during a Sept. 14 Mass at St. Mary’s Basilica, a Franciscan-run church.

*Mary and John stand next to him – the moment at which Christ gives the beloved disciple his mother.

*Mary Magdalene on other side, apostle to the apostles, with centurion whose son was healed. Only with faith can we see the cross’ victory.

*Most telling of Damiano cross – medallion at top. Priest carrying the “spoils of victory” and the hand of God accepting them.

*This cross brought the living Christ to St. Francis, who was totally transformed. “Go, rebuild my church!” Jesus says same at every Mass.

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The Very Rev. David Gaa, OFM, provincial minister, reflected on the transformational power of worship spaces during his homily via a personal testimony. It was while working his first real job as a teenager that Fr. Gaa stopped into a church for the first time. He returned periodically to look at the stained-glass windows and walls.

Fr. David Gaa, OFM, provincial minister for the Order of Friars Minor in the western states, delivers the first homily in Our Lady of the Angels church during its Mass of Dedication Oct. 4 at the Franciscan Renewal Center. (Ambria Hammel/CATHOLIC SUN)

Similar emotions flowed back the first time he visited the new Our Lady of the Angels Church. The friar, who became Catholic at age 24 and now oversees 165 friars in the west, set a goal for members of the Franciscan Renewal Center, which is also called The Casa. He prayed that one day someone would stumble in there just the same, “perhaps by the beauty of the space or the beauty of the liturgy or the beauty of the welcoming which you all are so well known for … and begin to have an experience with Jesus who transforms their life.”

The crowd emphatically agreed that if just one person is transformed by the beauty of The Casa’s new church and its sacraments that come with it, then the sacrificial cost of the building would be worth it because, as the saying goes, “Mi casa es su casa.”