When an arsonist put a match to St. Mary Church in Melrose March 11, 2016, it forced people to have to think about the unthinkable — how would they rebuild their beloved parish home?
To help with some of the difficult decisions that lay ahead for the community, parish leaders acted on a recommendation from Bishop Donald Kettler to hire a liturgical design consultant. After an interview process, they selected Ken Griesemer of Albuquerque, New Mexico. Griesemer, who is Catholic, visited Melrose June 16-18.
“I’m familiar with the passion that we all have for our places of worship,” he said. “It is our life, our sacramental life. This community has gone through a real traumatic event that no one chose. Now they find themselves in a situation they never thought they’d ever have to deal with, and it’s hard.”
Griesemer, who has worked with over 150 churches during his career, said his first visit to Melrose was mostly to listen and get a “slice of insights around the lives of these good people who are faced with a tremendous challenge.”
“One of the first things I told the groups was that I did not come with all the answers and I didn’t come here to tell them exactly what to do,” he said. “I came to listen and to learn and to be in a supporting role, to support whatever it was they see as their best course of action. My part is to bring the liturgical perspective to the discussion around the design of the sacred space of the church building.”
Griesemer, who does not provide architectural services, used a model he’s developed over his years as a liturgical design consultant to conduct a planning retreat with St. Mary’s parish council, finance council and building team on June 16 and 17.
Elements of the retreat included the spirituality of the project, next steps to take, organizing a timeline, practical considerations, decision-making and how to involve people in the conversation.
“There are foundational ideas that the church gives us,” Griesemer said. “A lot of what I share is what I’ve learned over the years, things I’ve learned from other people, learned from listening and watching and from unpacking my own experiences with projects. Often, I learned from projects where there were anomalies, things that went wrong, and I could ask what went wrong, what didn’t work, and learn from that.”
Faith, career come together
Griesemer has a history of working in architecture, beginning mostly with the commercial design of offices, hospitals and country clubs. He first became involved in liturgical design in 1985 when assisting with a project in his own home parish at the time in Dallas, Texas. From there, other doors opened and offers came in to assist in other church projects.
All of this, he said, led to a “confluence of faith and career.”
“I was going through kind of an adult conversion at that time in my life, really taking ownership of my faith,” he said. “WhenI discovered some of the teachings of the church around liturgy and architecture and art, and when I went through the process with some dedicated and skilled people from my parish, I saw what they were doing and I was very impressed.”
He attended a training program at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago called the Institute for Liturgical Consultants. There he met others in the field and began developing contacts, attending conferences and continuing his education.
“Slowly but surely, I found myself in situations to put to use what I was learning. As I look back on my own journey, I decided very early that I needed to spend a lot of time listening, learning, traveling and reading before I started saying anything.
Looking back, that is another place I see the guidance of the Holy Spirit.”
Eventually moving to Albuquerque, Griesemer partnered with a firm there which led him to start his own consulting firm on Oct. 4, 1999 — the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi, whom he chose as his confirmation saint name, and a date that marked the anniversary of his own infant baptism.
“When I flipped the calendar over and realized that was the day I was beginning this part of my journey, I thought, ‘This is a sign.’ More than a sign, it was a real affirmation that this wasn’t just a happenstance kind of thing. It was way more than that,” he said.
His faith melds well together with his line of work, he said, and he is honored to have been invited to participate in the process with the Melrose community. He hopes he can help them focus on unity.
“If you look at the way we pray as Catholics, we see unity all the time. Just look at the Eucharistic Prayer. It’s all in there. Together, we have experiences of the unity of the Body of Christ that transcends boundaries and barriers, languages and cultures,” he said.
“Having firsthand experience of that has made me a believer. Unity doesn’t come easy. We are baptized into it, with all the saints and angels, and the questions we can ask are: Can we draw on that? Can we honor it? Can we respect unity? How are we with one another? How compassionate are we? How do we speak kindly with one another? And how do we reflect that unity in the design of a church building?”
After the retreat, Griesemer attended all the weekend Masses held in Melrose, including the Spanish Mass. He introduced himself during Mass and afterward met with individuals and small groups. He took notes, listened to people expressing concerns and heard ideas from the parishioners.
“Almost everyone expressed great love for their original church and for their parish community,” he said. “I learned a lot and I’m glad I was able to listen deeply and hear some of the pain and consternation as well as their questions. I hope I was able to answer some questions and maybe alleviate a little bit of the fear there might be around the project.
“From my experience, the documents of the church around art and architecture support and encourage beautiful buildings for honoring the tradition of the church,” he said. “I hope I was able to build a little bit of confidence that whatever the parish does, there will be a commitment to doing it in a beautiful way.”
According to an update from the leadership teams at St. Mary’s, they are committed to building a new church. They are working with the architect — HMA Architects in St. Cloud — to discuss the property, site and possible layout for the new church and facilities. They are also working to develop a timeline from “fire to dedication day.”
“In addition to seeing where we have been, we will be able to track where we are going,” said parish council representative Kurt Schwieters.
“We are grateful for all who have worked so hard and hopeful as we move forward. Certainly, our parish is very grateful for all that Ken is assisting us with and we are very hopeful for our journey together.”