It started with a leaky roof, they say, along with chronic overcrowding, but now the parishioners at St. Michael's Catholic Church in Worley have a renovated place of worship beyond anything they hoped possible. They have real oak pews to sit on instead of 1970s-vintage plastic chairs, a dozen new stained glass windows lining the sanctuary and nearly double the space for worship. And, yes - a new metal roof.
The original frame chapel was built in 1937 and seated a few dozen people. Over the years, the parish made a few changes to the building, but the capacity of the church remained the same. The space served the needs of the small parish for a long time, but the reservation town of Worley is changing. More and more people visit nearby Lake Coeur d'Alene each year and the Coeur d'Alene Casino now draws visitors to town year-round.
"We now get a lot more vacationers, people with summer homes at the lake," says parishioner Ray Haeg who served on the building committee. "And we've had some influx of parishioners due to the casino employing so many people. From May to October, the church was just overflowing."
St. Michael's is a mission church affiliated with the Sacred Heart Indian Mission in DeSmet, served by Fr. Thomas Connelly and Sr. Dolores Ellwart. They appointed a committee of parishioners chaired by Dave Van Trease late in 2001 to examine building options, even though parish coffers held only a fraction of the funds that would be needed. The diocese in Boise had few funds available, so the parish applied for a grant from the Catholic Extension Service, a group that supports activities in poor and rural churches across the country. But the first round of news wasn't good.
"They turned us down," Haeg recalls. "It was a real blow to us."
Undeterred, the parishioners began a fund drive to raise the money for basic repairs. The drive raised enough to pay for a new all-weather metal roof just in time for winter. The church was still crowded, but at least the interior stayed dry.
That's when something curious began happening. Parishioners believe the Holy Spirit worked in mysterious ways to keep the project alive. Others say the angels came through; casino patrons might just call it a run of good luck.
In late fall 2002, as the roofers wrapped up their work, an anonymous donor through the Catholic Extension Service made $50,000 available for the project. Suddenly, the plans for expansion were back on track - until initial bids came in at about $250,000.
That's when Sr. Antonia Stare, a Dominican sister from Spokane and Haeg's aunt, stepped up. She recommended a contractor who might be able to do the work for less and parishioners eliminated costly items from the plan. Town and Country Builders of Spokane submitted a successful bid and construction began in September 2003. The Coeur d'Alene Tribe allowed St. Michael's to use the new tribal longhouse for Sunday Mass for three months during construction.
As work continued, the building committee searched for inexpensive ways to furnish the new space. Again, the pieces of the puzzle seemed to fall into place.
"The parish wanted pews, not the old plastic chairs we had," says Haeg. "We told Father we were looking for pews and he said, 'I know where you can get some.'"
Turns out there were 19 oak pews at the former Mary Immaculate School in DeSmet, a building that had been closed since 1975. The building and its contents - including the pews, an altar, Stations of the Cross and a Guardian Angel statue - had been deeded to the Coeur d'Alene Tribe. The Tribal Council agreed to donate the chapel contents to St. Michael's. Haeg's wife, Sarah, and other parishioners refinished the pews one by one and moved them into the expanded sanctuary.
In the DeSmet building, the Sisters of Providence still held title to a vintage stained glass window made by Deprato of Chicago in the early 1900s. The sisters donated the round window called "Christ, the Sacred Heart" to St. Michael's, after learning of the renovation. The parishioners had the window removed, restored and installed above the enlarged altar in the chapel's west wall.
Several families then pledged $1,500 each for new stained glass windows along the sides of the chapel. Now, a dozen blue-and-green windows with a radiating cross design - created by Reflections in Spokane and incorporating a design by parishioner Henry Aripa - fill the space with a soft warm light regardless of the outside weather.
As the project grew, the resources grew as well. Sr. Antonia helped raise thousands. Another donor from Catholic Extension Service stepped forward with an additional gift of $25,000 just as funds were running low. The parish dedicated the expanded building in May, but the work continues - parishioners located five more pews and are refinishing them to replace the last few rows of plastic chairs.
"Never in our wildest dreams did we think we'd be able to do all that we did," says Haeg. "We feel very privileged to be stewards of the chapel."