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placeholder November 24, 2014   •   VOL. 52, NO. 20   •   Oakland, CA

Parishioners paid for the new plush, multicolored chairs that replaced the wooden pews.
All: josÉ luis aguirre/The Catholic Voice

St. Columba renovations in tune with people, liturgy

Rev. Aidan McAleenan

A black corpus was commissioned from an artist in Ghana. The outline of a wooden cross came off the walls of the church.

If you visit Oakland's renovated St. Columba Church, or take a tour led by its pastor, Rev. Aidan McAleenan, what you find is a transformation of the divine kind.

A quick glance at the statues of Mary and Joseph by the entrance doors tell part of the story. Both of the statues, once European in appearance, are now black — a reflection of population changes in this north Oakland religious community.

Years ago, this parish was made up of people of Italian and Irish heritage, Father McAleenan said. Today the congregation is largely African American. The vibrant Sunday liturgy, which includes gospel music, drums and other percussion instruments and dance, attracts African American Catholics not only from the neighborhood but from as far away as Fairfield, Marin, San Francisco and San Jose.

We have people from 32 ZIP codes come to Sunday Mass, Father McAleenan said.

The church was built in 1960 during the pastorate of the late Msgr. James Wade, just prior to the start of the Second Vatican Council. "It was a big, old basic box," Father McAleenan said of the building. "The church wasn't designed with modern liturgy in mind."

The newly renovated sacred space however, is intended for the modern liturgy. The altar sits in the middle of the church surrounded on either side by chairs, in the spirit of the Vatican II's call for full and active participation of the lay people during Mass.

Do-it-yourself approach

The proposed cost of the renovation was $1.5 million, but taking a do-it-yourself approach cut that total to about $500,000.

Funding for the renovation came from the sale of property obtained by previous pastor which amounted to $250,000. The rest was raised by the parishioners who paid for the new plush, multicolored chairs that replaced the wooden pews and other fundraising activities.

Father McAleenan also enlisted an array of people who gave advice, referrals and donations to make the renovation possible. He received design advice from Rev. Ron Schmit, an expert in church architecture; an altar from the old cathedral (for the price of hauling it to the church); a sound system referral from Our Lady of Lourdes Parish; advice for the new audio visual set up from someone at Christ the King Parish in Pleasant Hill.

The pastor, who renovated an entire house in the Oakland hills before he became a priest, put those carpentry skills to work. No general contractors were used for this makeover, he said.

Parishioners also participated in a process of prayer and education to give context to the changes from a spiritual point of view.

Father McAleenan is especially pleased by the mix of the old and new throughout the church.

Eye-catching addition

One of the most eye-catching additions in the church is a black corpus that Father McAleenan had commissioned by an artist in Ghana. The outline of a wooden cross hangs behind the corpus. The wood for that cross literally came off the walls of the church.

The corpus is suspended over the baptismal font which sits behind the altar. It was originally planned for the font to be placed at the entrance of the church, where the font usually goes. However a shortage of space at the church entrance led to the decision to place the font behind the altar.

Behind the chairs along the walls are the stations of the cross that had been used in the church for many decades. On the back wall sits the tabernacle, another familiar item of the past that the parishioners had requested to stay.

"It has really become a beautiful worship space with an Afro-centric sensibility," Father McAleenan said. "It is a real joy to preside in."

A solemn liturgy was held at the start of the church year to re-dedicate the worship space.

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