By Lindsay Steele
The Catholic Messenger
OSKALOOSA – While parish volunteers prepared for an Easter Vigil celebration in the lower level of St. Mary Church a couple years ago, guests watched with pride upstairs as family members and friends received the sacraments of initiation.
When guests headed downstairs after Mass to continue the celebration, volunteers realized that one of the guests would be unable to make it to the party. The lower hall is not handicap-accessible, and the guest’s wheelchair could not be carried down the stairs.
Guests moved back upstairs to celebrate in the main congregational area, but “we felt hard-struck that we couldn’t better accommodate this person,” said Father John Spiegel, the parish’s pastor. “We were very embarrassed.”
In response to the frustrating situation, parishioners stepped up to find a solution that would be cost-effective and prevent future hardships for guests with disabilities and their families.
The parish has a street-level hall “a parking lot and a street” away from the church, but the parish generally doesn’t use it much during the cooler months, Fr. Spiegel said. For convenience and sometimes safety, most events during these times occur in the church’s lower-level hall.
Marg Cunningham, a former parish council president, wondered if it would be possible to renovate the former rectory next door into a handicap-accessible gathering space. Fr. Spiegel said, “She recognized our concern to provide a universally accessible social space for the parish nearer the church building for social gatherings related to liturgical services, especially in more adverse weather months.”
According to Cunningham and the parish’s Buildings and Grounds committee, the rectory has been unoccupied since 2005, at which time it became an educational center. The larger rooms in the three-story rectory are used for Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults classes, classrooms and small groups, but the small rooms on the first floor generally went unused.
Fr. Spiegel said a renovation made sense, as it would cost much less than building a new structure. “We could do it for under $50,000 as opposed to $250,000,” he said.
The parish decided to gut most of the first floor to form a space that could accommodate 50 people. Amenities would include handicap-accessible restrooms, a new kitchen area, gathering space, meeting room and library. A ramp rail, made to match the hand rail at the church, was included in the plans.
The parish hired outside contractors as needed, with several members of the Buildings and Grounds committee volunteering many hours to complete this project, said committee chair Bob Feist.
Construction began in March, and most of the renovations were completed at the end of July, Feist said. The railing should be installed in mid-September.
Funding for the remodeling project came from the parish’s My Father’s House fund, established from funds from the sale of parish properties for capital improvement projects.
Fr. Spiegel has been impressed by the creativity and hard work provided by St. Mary’s parishioners in solving accessibility shortcomings. “(We) are showing how we want to serve those who are challenged — in a better way, but yet in a way that is affordable.”