New church blessed at St. Stephen, Salado

Photo above: Bishop Joe Vásquez blessed the new church for St. Stephen Parish in Salado on Sept. 26. The new church seats 400 people, which more than doubles the seating capacity of the old church. (Photo courtesy St. Stephen, Salado)

By Kira Ciupek
Correspondent

The Dedication Mass of St. Stephen Parish in Salado began on the sunny autumn morning of Sept. 26, with a gathering of several hundred people in front of the original sanctuary, which is a single-story, limestone building that has served the parish for almost 26 years. The celebration was the result of a two year fundraising project, the “Building for our Lord Campaign,” during which parishioners pledged their support for construction of a new sanctuary on the empty six acre lot next to the original buildings. 
Families and other supporters gathered on the grassy lawn beneath a circle of trees as Bishop Joe Vásquez greeted them, “Brothers and sisters in Christ, this is a day of rejoicing; we have come together to dedicate this church by offering within it the sacrifice of Christ.” 
The Knights of Columbus led the procession, which included Bishop Vásquez, Auxiliary Bishop Daniel Garcia, Father Aloysius Nzekwe, pastor of St. Stephen, Missionary of the Sacred Heart Father Richard O’Rouke, and other diocesan priests. The St. Stephen’s Choir sang, “Let us go rejoicing into the house of the Lord.” The group stopped in front of the newly constructed 50-foot tall limestone sanctuary with its simple white cross rising from the apex and listened as the architect and the builder presented the keys and plans for the church to the bishop.
As participants passed through the foyer they were greeted by a wall-mounted television screen featuring a slide show of the construction process. Prior to the Mass, Graciela Gonzalez, a visitor from St. Mary of the Assumption Parish in West, reminisced about the building process.
“I’ve seen this church rise from the ground. At one point there was no floor; just two painters on scaffolds painting the Sacred Heart of Jesus above the altar. There was a beautiful feeling of his holy presence there,” she said.
St. Stephen’s new sanctuary contains architectural elements modeled after at least five Texas Catholic churches, including St. William in Round Rock and St. Louis in Austin, according to Glenn Pritchett, project Manager for the St. Stephen building campaign.
“It was a unique situation with unanimous votes among the 10 member committee for everything about the building,” he said. “The altar and everything unique to the church were inspirations of Father Aloy (Nzekwe). If not for his perseverance, insight and attention to detail, we would simply have a nice church — but this sanctuary is stunning!”
During the Dedication Mass, the altar and walls of the church were anointed with holy oil. Father Nzekwe, who has served St. Stephen Parish for two years, stated in an earlier interview that this is one of the most important moments in the service. 
“There are 12 columns to be anointed, which symbolizes the 12 apostles upon which Christ built his church,” Father Nzekwe said. “The 12 columns also represent the 12 tribes of Israel, which makes it a complete representation, showing that God doesn’t exclude anyone! He still builds his church today, upon us. It is almost like we’re consecrating ourselves when we consecrate the new sanctuary.”
In the homily, Bishop Vásquez reminded the congregation of their responsibility to “build up the body of Christ,” as each member seeks encounter with Jesus through the sacraments.
“The Holy Father, Pope Francis, has declared this the Jubilee year of Mercy, telling us to seek God’s mercy and become the face of mercy. This church will, hopefully, be a place where people experience God’s mercy,” the bishop said.
The Dedication Mass, which drew an estimated 500 people, was celebrated in both English and Spanish, reflecting the composition of St. Stephen Parish. 
“Father Aloy has united this congregation of both English and Spanish speaking parishioners. This church has grown from a handful of people to a packed house,” Pritchett said.
Father Nzekwe emphasized that it is important for growing congregations to consider constructing new sanctuaries.
“Any local parish is like a family,” he said. “The house is the center of the family. The church is the gathering point for the family of God, which is the house of God, who is the head of his family. Here, we encounter God, and God establishes a bond of union with his family. If we are to prosper, we need the center of nourishment where can encounter God.
More than 160 families and individuals have made pledges to the St. Stephen “Building for our Lord Campaign.” The parish has exceeded the original goal of raising $1 million, with $1.4 million in pledges raised so far. 
“People were very excited because it was something everyone longed for,” Father Nzekwe said. “The only concern was how to pay for it with a small number of families. It was a journey of faith, and it turned out to be a miracle for everybody.” 
Don Roberts, president of the St. Stephen Pastoral Council, concurred with his pastor.
“We have dreamed about this. Finally, through the efforts of the parish family, we’ve come to the completion of this project,” he said.
For more information on St. Stephen Parish, visit www.saintstephenchurch.org.