MEQUON — Eleven years after St. James and St. Cecilia parishes merged to form Lumen Christi Parish in Mequon and Thiensville, the time has come for all church ministries and the parish school to operate out of one central campus.
It’s an exciting time for the parish as it successfully executed an $11.5 million capital campaign to enable a comprehensive renovation of their Mequon site, the former St. James Parish, located at the intersection of Mequon and Range Line Roads.
The buildout includes a new 10,000- square-foot gym and parish activities center, expanded parking lot and more, with all construction completed on time and under budget, according to parish leadership.
But it is also a time of reflection and loss, as Lumen Christi prepares for the decommissioning and sale of the Lumen Christi Thiensville church, the previous site of St. Cecilia Parish, formed in 1919.
“I think this is a new chapter for Lumen Christi Parish, and from all the feedback I’ve received, everyone is extremely positive – ready for the future,” said Mike Walton, chairman of the ad-hoc building committee, at the forefront of the effort to consolidate campuses.
“The Thiensville location was a great, wonderful part of our history and we’re very grateful for that, but we’re also looking forward to the future,” he said.
Last Mass an emotional good-bye
Hundreds of parishioners gathered on the morning of Sunday, Sept. 25, at Lumen Christi Thiensville, packing the modestly sized church for an emotional last Mass.
“I don’t want to go,” Fr. Dan Sanders, pastor of Lumen Christi, admitted to parishioners at the beginning of Mass. Still, he reminded the congregation: “It’s not so much where we pray, but that we’re praying with each other.”
During his homily, Fr. Sanders invited parishioners to raise their hands and share memories of the church. Many took the opportunity to reminisce about family baptisms, Easter vigils, weddings, confirmations, grade school graduations, wedding anniversaries and midnight Christmas Masses. After Communion, the congregation joined in a litany of gratitude as Fr. Sanders, visibly emotional, made his way to the front doors of the church to administer a farewell blessing.
After Mass, selected artifacts from the church – including the monstrance, holy oils, Easter candle and a painting of Our Lady of Guadalupe – were loaded into a truck and parishioners processed in a motorcade to Lumen Christi Mequon. Once there, the new St. Cecilia Hall – a multipurpose room located in the former gymnasium and named for the Thiensville church – was the host site for a unification celebration.
“I’m scared, I’m nervous, but I’m looking forward to (the transition). I think it’s going to present some good opportunities,” said Lora Reinholz, a longtime parishioner at Lumen Christi Thiensville. She joined St. Cecilia parish in 1989.
“Things got very real several weeks ago when we saw the for sale sign up in front of church. It was strange, unusual, a little bit surreal, but it also kind of pushed the reality,” she said.
The Thiensville church is being put up for sale through Colliers Commercial Real Estate, and though the parish has had an offer, “it wasn’t what we were looking for. We’re still in the early stages of selling the property,” said Walton.
Several real estate developers and other educational and religious entities have shown interest in the site, he added.
The church building itself was constructed in 1964 at a time when St. Cecilia Parish was experiencing rapid growth. With 460 families in the parish and 360 children enrolled in the school, “we need bigger and better facilities,” reads literature from the time, displayed at the unification celebration.
“Our present church … requires six Masses to handle our parish population of over 1,400 … and we still have standing-room only crowds at late Sunday morning Masses. Only third and eighth grade children can receive the benefits of daily Mass … attendance at Holy Day Masses often spills out onto the church steps,” read the literature.
The church was remodeled in 1988. At the time of its closing, only one weekend Mass was held at the Thiensville church.
Consolidation will cut costs, improve efficiency
The parishes of St. James and St. Cecilia officially merged in 2005, though their parish schools had formed an independent corporation in 1984 and their Christian formation programs had been operating as one since 1991.
St. Cecilia brought 940 households to the merger, with St. James bringing a little over 1,600. Pre-K through third grade continued to operate out of the school building on Orchard Street in Thiensville, with fourth through eighth grades in Mequon. Parish administration was similarly split.
The effort to consolidate operations under one roof has been about 10 years in the making.
“It was something we needed to do regardless of the timing,” said Walton. “Obviously it’s somewhat of an inefficient operation when you’re split (into two campuses) like that.”
For years, the school had been staggering its starting and ending times to allow for families with multiple students at different sites enough time to make the six-minute drive between campuses. “From an administrative standpoint, it was tricky and we had to be very strategic,” said school principal Kelly Fyfe, noting staff members were also constantly running back and forth. “I think we all felt, administrators and specialists, that you were never doing justice to what needed to be done. You were always falling short.”
There was a failed effort to unite onto one campus in 2008, and many parishioners doubted whether or not it would ever happen.
“Everybody was still pretty much married to their own church and their own location, as often happens in these church mergers,” said parish trustee John Clark, a St. James member since 1987. “But over time, parishioners started going to the other campus for Masses at the times they preferred or for other events, and I think everybody got more comfortable.”
“It’s been one step at a time,” said Reinholz.
Most St. Cecilia members likely realized, she said, that the closing of their church was an eventuality that could not be avoided. It is smaller, older and less centrally located than its Mequon counterpart.
“Sometimes you can see the writing on the wall, but you don’t want to admit it,” Reinholz said.
In 2013, the ad hoc building committee was formed and in March 2014 a feasibility study was conducted, indicating support for the direction of the two-phase proposed building project. The parish purchased property to the east of their Mequon church in the summer of 2014 and hired Plunkett Raysich Architects and Berghammer Construction. The capital campaign was launched in September.
The first phase of the building project was completed only days before the start of the 2016-2017 school year – construction of a 10,000-square-foot gym/parish activity center and classrooms, remodeling of the old gym into a two-story parish office building, overhaul to the school cafeteria, kitchen, existing parish offices and other assorted upgrades.
The second phase, a $5 million project which will consist of renovations to the Mequon church, including a new east entry and gathering space, will begin this fall.
The project was accomplished with no long-term debt, said Walton. The parish estimates it will save hundreds of thousands of dollars per year in operational costs by unifying onto one site.
Competitive edge for Lumen Christi School
There is expected to be an increase in school enrollment as well; there are more than 20 new students this year and unprecedented interest in next year’s enrollment, said Fyfe.
Lumen Christi School operates in the Mequon-Thiensville School District, consistently ranked among the top school districts in Wisconsin with a roughly $40 million annual budget for the 2015-2016 school year. In that kind of environment, it’s imperative to remain competitive, said Fyfe.
“We have to stay the same if not better; my goal is always to be better than our competition, and facilities is one way that parents, right now, value that,” she said.
“There is no question that combining our two sites will be advantageous from a financial perspective – whether one is looking at operating costs or the capital required to properly maintain two physical properties,” said George Hoff, parish trustee and finance council member. Still, the parish’s “overriding objective,” he said, was spiritual unity.
“We firmly believe we are far stronger together – from our school through Catholic formation and even prayer and liturgy,” he said. “Throughout the unification process, all of our ministries made a concerted effort to create something even better than what existed on either campus. In the world of M&A (mergers and acquisitions), we would call this ‘one plus one is greater than two.’”
One parish ‘worships together’
Throughout the next few months, the parish’s unification committee will continue to meet to assess the transition and “see what the next steps are,” said Reinholz.
Music was always a big part of the culture at St. Cecilia, she added – and she’s glad that the Lumen Christi Thiensville choir will remain intact, performing every other Sunday at their new home.
“Everyone will have a chance to hear things a little bit differently. I think that’s good from a unification side and also just to get to know one another more,” she said. “We’ve been in the parish almost 30 years and there’s so many people I don’t know and so many people I only know their faces or their names but I can’t put the two of them together.”
Clark agreed, noting “you’re not truly one parish until you’re worshipping together.”
“Our motto is one family sharing the love and light of Christ, and we can’t do that on two different campuses,” he said. “It was a situation where a third of the parish didn’t know or have the opportunity to meet, on any regular basis, the other two thirds of the parish.”
Though it will be difficult to lose the spiritual home they shared for so many decades, Reinholz said St. Cecilia parishioners are resolved to look to the future.
“We can celebrate the wonderful times that we’ve had there, and we can say OK, it’s time for something different. And that’s what we’re going to do,” she said.