LIDGERWOOD, N.D. — When it comes to sacred spaces, beauty isn’t optional; churches should lift the heart to heaven.
This vision led interior renovations of St. Boniface Catholic Church here in rural southeastern North Dakota, guiding the Rev. Peter Anderl in a monthslong endeavor completed in early 2020.
“Beauty is an attribute of God, and it’s objective,” Anderl says. “We’re body and soul, drawn to things which can inspire,” he adds, and “awe and wonder at God” are integral to faith.
But when he arrived in Lidgerwood in 2018, after pastoring parishes in Mooreton and Matador — and serving as parochial vicar at Sts. Anne and Joachim Church in Fargo previously — rather than uplifted, his spirits were dampened.
Inside the sanctuary, Anderl was met with 12,000 square feet of outdated mauve carpeting; a small altar suited more to a “travel altar”; an ill-matched crucifix; and a plain, white wall behind the altar painted with only primer.
“It was left undone,” he says, noting that the carpet had grown musty, causing frequent “hacking and coughing.”
“It had become so diseased that ripping it apart became an insurance hazard.”
With rectory renovations sorely needed, Anderl focused his attention there, praying for the future of the church. He called on Mark Heuer, an area flooring expert who’d helped with the Mall of America and Vikings stadium projects, to assist. The impressive rectory-project results led to discussions about the church.
Heuer knew how to obtain quality supplies worldwide at substantially reduced costs. Focusing on God-made materials, marble flooring became a top aim.
“We could have done a very simple renovation using carpet or vinyl, but the cost would have been almost the same,” Anderl says — and the result, not nearly as enduring.
“The stone in the knave comes from Turkey,” Heuer says, the same “species” found in Italy, but costing half as much. “The rest of the stone, in the aisle and sanctuary, are from Italy.”
One faith, two churches
Earlier in the city’s history, Lidgerwood had two Catholic churches — St. Boniface for the German community, and St. John Nepomucene for the Bohemian families. Anderl wanted to tie in themes from both — bold, bright colors honoring Bohemian culture, while highlighting inspiring aspects of the original St. Boniface, including the stained-glass windows.
But above all, he wanted the church to be a refuge for busy farmers and others.
“Our goal was to showcase — as much as we could here in our little part of North Dakota — a piece of heaven,” Anderl says. “So if people asked, ‘Where were you today?’ they could say, ‘Well, I just went to heaven, and now I’m going back to the farm to take on the rest of the day.’”
First came the daunting task of pulling carpet and reshaping the poorly laid base.
“The cement floor was like a Ruffles potato chip,” Anderl says. “Mark spent about 7,000 hours of his own time, after his full-time job in Fargo, grinding the concrete to make it smooth enough to lay down the marble.”
The arduous task paid off.
“You can see how the stained glass reflects on the stone floor perfectly,” Anderl says. “It’s just pristine.”
He was especially heartened by parishioners’ eager assistance at a moment’s notice, he says, and the generosity of the nearby Bergan Lutheran Church community, which offered Mass space for St. Boniface parishioners during the renovation.
Innovation mixed with sacred
Every aspect was thoughtfully chosen, including the three large medallions inserted into the center aisle, infused with precious metals at Heuer’s suggestion, and gold detail framing the stained-glass windows and altar centerpiece, guided by Mark McAllister, Fargo.
The red-hued marble altar steps symbolize martyrs’ blood, indicating “the seeds of the church — those who shed their blood for the faith,” Anderl explains.
LED lighting and refurbished light fixtures add brightness, while altar pieces that better fit the space, both physically and liturgically, add to the revisions, along with a larger Peruvian crucifix.
To finish the altar space, Anderl searched for someone adept at sacred art. Summoning divine help, he says, Elizabeth Schwankl, a former parishioner and owner of Artrends Gallery in Fargo, came to mind.
“I felt honored from the very instant Father called me,” Schwankl says. After her own prayers and “guidance of the Holy Spirit,” the vision came together.
Knowing traditional application methods would have taken months and been cost-prohibitive, however, Anderl and Heuer pondered creative alternatives. Might it work to enlarge a smaller version of her work, then digitally transfer it onto a canvas inserted into the altar wall? They decided to try.
“I did the painting on a smaller scale,” Schwankl explains, using “a very fine-tip (sable) brush,” and wearing magnifying glasses with attached lights made specifically for high-detail projects.
Using a high-resolution scanner, they blew up the painting to over four times the original size — and it worked.
“It’s such a radical way of mixing (traditional art) with technology,” Heuer says. “This hasn’t been done anywhere on this scale before, that I know of.”
What would have cost $125,000 was reduced to several thousand. “It was incredible what Liz did for us.”
Due to the method used, Anderl says, the work “will never crack, peel or change.”
Aware of the many generations that would gaze upon her work, Schwankl says, she knew it needed to be “classic and beautiful.”
“All the craftsmanship needed to be there,” she adds. “You can’t just slap it down and call it ‘good enough.’”
As she worked, Schwankl’s youngest son, Adam, also an artist who has done sanctuary work, was battling cancer, which is currently in remission.
“There was a lot of praying going on during that project… and so many answered prayers,” she says.
The project also incorporates statues of Mary and St. John that Schwankl acquired several years ago and restored specifically for St. Boniface.
“When you put it all together, it is a one-and-only, original artwork,” she says. “Nobody else in the world has those same components put together in this way.”
Speaking after one of the first post-renovation Masses there, she says, the community responded with gratitude — and in some cases, through grateful tears.
Beauty for all
Answering any questions of the project being superfluous, Anderl recalls his financial prudence, possible in large part through the volunteer efforts of a faithful, dedicated community. He also points to the universal human aching for beauty, and says not going all out for God, or selling church art to feed the poor, as some suggest, doesn’t make sense, since beauty found within a church is meant for the poor most of all — and there’s no admission fee.
It’s also about providing a proper home for what is within.
“What we as Catholics worship in church is the Lord our God, who not even the heavens itself can contain; who chooses to come down and, through the priest, makes himself present under the appearance of bread and wine on the altar,” he says. People are then fed “with the very body, blood, soul and divinity of God himself.”
“That’s why we build an edifice, to glorify God,” Anderl continues. “It’s why we have a sanctuary lamp next to the tabernacle, to tell us that the same Lord our God who’s reigning in heaven is reigning here in Lidgerwood, or any town, facility or location where there’s a tabernacle.”
“The parishioners of Lidgerwood,” Heuer offers, “built their sanctuary, their church, because of their love for God.”
“And they wanted it to be a beacon for others to come and pray and receive,” Anderl adds, noting that psychologists have said “the greatest psychological, spiritual, mental and emotional healing comes from simply resting in the presence of God.”
Ultimately, he sees St. Boniface as that; “a place of refuge where (humanity) can encounter God’s love.”
[For the sake of having a repository for my newspaper columns and articles, I reprint them here, with permission, a week after their run date. The preceding ran in The Forum newspaper on Nov. 11 2020.]