St. James Catholic Church A RENEWED SPIRIT

By Tom Vogt
Published in The Columbian

Mother Joseph designed the pews.  The oak altar piece was crafted in Belgium in 1884 and shipped to Vancouver around the tip of South America.

And now a new generation of artists and craftsmen have left their mark on St. James Catholic Church. 

A renovation project at the downtown Vancouver landmark has restored century-old artwork and maybe even saved some parts of the historic building. 

The parish will celebrate the church's renovation on Sunday, Nov. 9; Archbishop Brunett, leader of the Seattle archdiocese, will rededicate the church at 11 a.m.

The most visible aspect of the million-dollar makeover is the church's interior.  Worshippers can glance at up a ceiling dome and, where they might have seen flaking plaster a year ago, they can see gold stars twinkling in a deep blue sky.

Several representations of saints and evangelists - pieces of art that had been locked away for decades - have been restored to their original settings in the ceiling, high above the altar. 

For some of the interior renovation, the parish went back to the people who'd done it the first time... back to the same company, anyway: Conrad Schmitt Studios of New Berlin, Wis.

"They did the artwork in 1929, and that job was $24,000," said the Rev. Dominic Hahn, the church's pastor.

"We asked if we could get the same price, they said no," he said with a smile.  "This one was about $650,000."

The crew filled the church's interior with a maze of scaffolding that gave artists a perch where they could paint and apply gold leaf accents to the ceiling.

There also are some historical elements in the interior design.  Hahn pointed out several fleur-de-lis patterns along the ceiling curves - reminders of the parish's roots.  It was established in 1838 by missionaries from Montreal, Quebec.

But the renovation wasn't just appearances, Hahn said. 

"Some of the brickwork had to be redone to save the building," Hahn said. 

Inside the church, a section of plaster had fallen from a wall, and other sections of plaster were in danger of peeling off other walls or plummeting from the ceiling.

"There was a sway in the choir loft, and engineers had to take a look to make sure it was safe," Hahn said. 

All the church pews - the creations of pioneering nun Mother Joseph - were removed and shipped to a company in Independence, Ore., for refinishing.

"They took a lot of gum off," added church volunteer Lesa Langer.  She and her husband Fred are co-chairs of the parish's communication committee. 

St. James was the first masonry cathedral in Washington when it finished in 1885.

And another bit of budgetary whiplash: "It was originally built for $40,000," said Robert Kunselman, volunteer project manager.  He retired in 2004 as director of materials management at Southwest Washington Medical Cente.

The parish, which includes about 900 families, paid for the entire project with a capital campaign.  Altogether, the fundraising effort brought in about $1.4 million, Hahn said.  That will pay for the work that remains to be done, including renovation of 19 stained glass windows; 11 have already been restored and reinstalled, Kunselman said.

-Did you know?  When it was built in 1885, St. James Cathedral was the centerpiece of the Nesqually Diocese.  In 1907, the seat of the diocese moved to Seattle, and St. James became a parish church.





St. James Catholic Church A RENEWED SPIRIT (PDF 1.15 Mb)

Tell us about your next Project