By Jeff Grant, The Catholic Sun
PHOENIX — Construction is expected to begin within several weeks on a new church for St. Benedict Parish in the far southeast corner of Phoenix, a project that will give the parish a permanent church home seventeen years after it moved into a converted gym on parish property.
Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted and Pastor James Aboyi, V.C., led a groundbreaking attended by over 100 laity and parish staff at the construction site on 48th Street between E. Frye Road and Woodland Drive on Nov. 6.
“All powerful and all merciful Father, you have created all things through your Son and have made Him the unshakeable foundation of your Kingdom,” the bishop prayed. “Through the gift of your eternal wisdom, grant that the undertaking we begin today for your glory and our own well-being may progress day-by-day to a successful completion, through Christ, our Lord.”
The $6.3 million project will add over 11,000 square feet of space to the existing 14,247-square-foot structure, including a new chapel, choir loft, cry room, bell tower and storage areas. It also will create a permanent, modern worship space, including pews, modernized altar, expanded sanctuary and beautified nave. Seating capacity will grow from 600 to 812, according to Bob Prezkop, parish Building Committee chair and co-leader of the design and construction team.
St. Benedict hopes to finish by Christmas 2022.
Sunday Mass will be celebrated temporarily in the multipurpose room at adjacent St. John Bosco Elementary School. Weekday Mass will be celebrated in Annex 2.
The renovation and expansion replace a prior, costlier plan for a brand-new building that would have required relocating the building site. That restriction, coupled with rising labor and material costs tied to the COVID 19 pandemic, led the parish, under Fr. Aboyi’s leadership, to opt for the less expensive route.
“Our core team was challenged to take our existing building and make it look like a church. Working with Diocese of Phoenix Assistant Director of Construction Building and Property Patrick Hintz and our architect, HDA, Bruce Scott, we succeeded,” Prezkop said.
“This is a great moment for us; a great journey that started so many years ago,” Fr. Aboyi told the sun-drenched audience, many standing, at the ceremony. “This is not just the effort of the pastor, but the collective effort and teamwork of so many of us. I want to thank you all for your support and your prayers as we come to this historic moment in the history of our church.”
Founded in 1985 in neighboring Chandler, St. Benedict was moved by the Diocese to its present site just over the border with Phoenix in 2004. The building presently housing Mass was originally intended as a gym for the school. It has served the parish 17 years. Along the way, pastors raised the plan of a permanent church with the project gaining steam under the Rev. Bob Binta. When Fr. Binta died in 2018, Fr. Aboyi picked up the ball, still pursuing a permanent church until conditions made the plan no longer feasible.
“When I came,” Fr. Aboyi recalled, “[there were] very painful moments. I remember telling him [Fr. Binta] that he is like Moses, and I am more like Joshua. Moses saw the Promised Land from a distance, but he never arrived there.”
Bishop Olmsted hailed the collaboration.
“It is a real tribute to priestly fraternity and love for one another as brothers in Christ.”
The shift from plan for a brand-new building to a one using an existing structure has parishioners equally, if not more excited.
“I can’t wait to see it happen… this beautiful space, having weddings here now, and this new St. Benedict parish life,” smiled Lani Gore, a parishioner since 2004 and St. Benedict’s Events Planning Ministry Leader.
“It will solidify the practice of our faith and our spiritual home. Hopefully, we will continue to grow and build on the goodness we have here,” said Eamonn Aherne, original chair of the Living our Faith, Building our Church capital campaign.
“When I walk in, it will remind me this is a church built by this loving community. It’s not a building; it’s a community,” said Marianne Biegler, who, with her husband, Jerry, has seen both their children and grandchildren attend St. John Bosco School and become active in parish life.
“These are people of real faith. Their faith is important to them,” said Bishop Olmsted. “They rejoice in it. You can see it today. It’s beautiful. It is a faith that is alive.”
Situated in a mostly residential neighborhood with nearby commercial areas, St. Benedict has both an established and growing population from which to draw potential new members.
“I think we will see new parishioners. The numbers support it. When you build a new church, you attract people outside the boundaries,” Aherne said. “There are a lot of people who really like St. Benedict culture and the parish but felt praying in a gym was a little disrespectful.”
The project is part of a larger trend that has seen the Diocese build or expand several new churches in recent years.
Since 2016, five new churches have been built, according to figures supplied by the office of Director of Real Property & Facilities John Minieri. Three churches, including St. Benedict, are being expanded.
The expansion contrasts with trends in many other parts of the United States, notably the Northeast and Midwest, according to the Rev. Thomas P. Gaunt, S.J., executive director of the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate. CARA is a social-science research entity serving the Catholic Church since 1964.
“The Diocese of Phoenix has been adding year after year the number of new Catholics. The big piece of that is migration patterns. It is not people abandoning churches elsewhere but moving to different areas. You have a big contrast in the massive migration of movement of Catholics out of the Northeast and into the Southwest,” Fr. Gaunt explained.
Chandler, Gilbert, and Queen Creek, all south and east of Phoenix, have seen robust growth. When St. Benedict was established, it served 24 registered families. Today, that figure is 1,184. Anywhere from 400-500 people attend Mass on any given Sunday, according to parish Coordinator of Stewardship and Development Jennifer Sentz.
What makes the St. Benedict project different is that it is starting in a period characterized by a lagging supply chain and labor market tied to the COVID 19 pandemic. But after nearly two decades, these obstacles are merely the latest step in the journey for St. Benedict’s faithful.
“Having the vision come to fruition shows you how strong and willing the community is and how our faith is,” said Jerry Biegler.
The bishop agreed, and prayed St. Benedict’s community would be strengthened yet again for this project.
“It’s been 36 years since the parish of St. Benedict was established. And all the ups and downs of the parish since its beginning remind us of the prayer of Psalm 90. ‘Oh, Lord, you have been our refuge from one generation to the next. Give us joy to balance our affliction for the years when we knew misfortune. Let the favor of the Lord be upon us and give success to the work of our hands.’
“We build a beautiful church so God will receive the glory not ourselves. Our own hearts and minds will be moved to want to praise Him even more and live a life of holiness that shows the beauty and goodness of God. These principles, already alive here, should grow in the months ahead.”
“I was thrilled,” said Karen Aherne, Eamonn’s wife. “I hardly slept last night, thinking ‘I can’t believe it’s actually here.’ We’re on our way.”