Master Plan: The Design of the Church

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Published in "Celebrating Our Jubilee", brochure for St. John Vianney Parish

Bernie Gruenke believes the design of a church should tell a story.  As an award-winning artist with a passion for religion, Bernie has told hundreds of stories at churches around the world.  As a charter member of St. John Vianney, his artistic vision has shaped the look and the feel of our parish from the very start.

For 55 years, Bernie has lived in his home on Greenbrier Drive just south of SJV.  In 1956, he and his wife, Mary Anne, were members of St. Mary’s Elm Gove, when it was announced that anyone living west of Pilgrim Road would become a member of the new St. John Vianney.

That meant the new parish would inherit one of the preeminent church artists in the world.  Bernie owned and operated Conrad Schmitt Studios in New Berlin, a company of artists responsible for some of the world’s largest design and renovation projects.  Bernie started there in 1936 and for nearly 70 years has lent his vision and his hand to churches, cathedrals, synagogues and public facilities like Union Station in St. Louis and the Waldorf Astoria in New York City.

Conrad Schmitt specialized in stained glass, murals, mosaics, sculpture and statuary.  But for Bernie, it was more than just art.  “I always wanted to study the liturgy and the scripture before I did the work,” he said.

Bernie added the interior design and the finishing touches to the original St. John Vianney church, now the school cafeteria.  In the 1970s, when it was time for a larger church, some of Bernie’s plans created a stir.  He designed the Risen Christ that graces our sanctuary, an alternative to the more traditional crucifix.  He fought to include female saints in the artwork.  He installed faceted glass in the windows on the back wall, and he moved the tabernacle to the Blessed Sacrament Chapel so that people could linger and socialize when the Mass was over.

“I wanted the church to be a house of God’s people,” said Bernie.  “I love how everyone at St. John Vianney hugs each other and greets each other after Mass.”

Today Bernie’s son and two grandchildren are at the helm of Conrad Schmitt.  Bernie himself, nearing 93 years old, still reports to his studio a few times each week.  His three children, nine grandchildren and 14 great grandchildren have been a comfort to him since his wife died four years ago.

In addition to his creative contributions, Bernie also made the largest one-time financial donation to St. John Vianney when he turned over the proceeds from the sale of his Florida condo a few years ago.  “This church has always been so very important to Mary Anne and to me,” he said.

At St. John Vianney, the story Bernie Gruenke tells with his work is full of light and color and texture.  It’s a story of growth and faith and family.  It’s a story that will continue for years to come.

•    Our new church in its physical form is truly a beautiful edifice … a wonderful building.  We must now make this new house our spiritual house.  We must breathe into it a “soul” by our community worship.  Then, together, this new body and renewed spirit will be most pleasing in the eyes of God.  May it move us to a new level of obedience to His Will.  May it increase in us a love of God in others.  May our new spiritual life be an inspiration to our children’s children.

Prologue from Dedication Booklet
New St. John Vianney Church, 1978

Master Plan: The Design of the Church (PDF 1.03 Mb)

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