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Plenty of old touches ring a bell in new church

By Martin van den Hemel

Published 10:36 PDT, Wed May 15, 2019

When the church bell rings for the first time at the new St. Paul Roman Catholic Church on St. Albans Road, it will be the first such occasion in a long time—perhaps too long for some members of the local Dutch community.

The recently opened 20,000-square-foot, $14-million place-of-worship can seat 960 people, nearly double the capacity of the church it replaces; the original was built when Richmond was still a sleepy farming community.

When the original church at St. Paul Parish opened in 1965—replacing the parish hall—Dutch members of the parish donated a church bell, which for many years afterward called out in familiar fashion to locals on Saturdays and Sundays, telling them that mass was about to begin.

But the vibrations from the bell did more than just call to the masses. They were also damaging the church’s roof, causing it to leak.

So the bell was eventually taken down, and placed in the boiler room, where it sat for many years in virtual anonymity.

But today, the bell has received a prominent place befitting the generous donations that made it possible.

Sporting a fresh coat of paint, and polished up to look shiny and new, the church bell now sits in the open-faced bell tower where it greets those who walk, cycle or drive by.

Monsignor Dennis Luterbach was first appointed pastor at St. Paul Parish in 2003, and the completion of the church comes as he nears retirement at the age of 75.

“We have no present plans on when to ring it,” Luterbach said of the gift from the Dutch parishioners.

But it will no doubt be a special occasion, perhaps when Archbishop Michael Miller, of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Vancouver, comes to bless the church and consecrate the altar on June 18.

Luterbach won’t say precisely when he’s retiring, but he’ll be doing so with the knowledge that he steered the parish through the many challenges of building one of the largest Catholic churches in the Lower Mainland.

Luterbach thanked parishioner Dominic Fiore for the countless hours of volunteer time he served as the project manager for the massive construction effort—“Dominic was remarkable in his dedication and work,” Luterbach said—which looked like it began in October 2017 when the general contractors got started.

But in truth, the work started in 2004 or 2005, when a master plan was created that ultimately led to what we see today.

It was a labour of love, for the church and for God, Fiore told The Richmond Sentinel. Fiore also chaired the building committee that included members of the church community. (Fiore is no stranger to managing big projects, having served in that capacity for a quarter century at Vancouver International Airport Authority.)

Aside from its size, one of the most distinguishing features of the new church is its lack of columns, which means everyone can see the priest and what’s happening on the altar and the front of the church.

Holding up the roof is a series of glulam beams—engineered wood beams composed of wood laminations bonded together by moisture-resistant adhesives—the longest stretching 90 feet. They were brought in from Edmonton.

The extensive use of wood on its interior gives the church a warm and welcoming atmosphere.

When the church was being designed, Luterbach said one of the wish-list items was for it to have a gathering place for people near the front, “so people could gather and spend time together without being in the church.”

There are glass doors that separate the narthex of the church and the nave, where people can pray privately without being interfered with.

The floor slopes at a two per cent grade, Fiore said, giving the interior a theatre style feel.

The church has also been built on solid footing.

Crushed gravel was pressed into the ground at some 240 locations to a depth of 15 metres, and seismic drains were installed every few feet to ensure the church remains upright in the event the Big One hits.

But the new church also has plenty of the old church in it.

The 14 stations of the cross were brought over, as was the fibreglass figure of Jesus—which hung on the wall at front of the old church but now hangs on the back wall of the new church above the glass doors—and the marble lectern.

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