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Father Vitalis Anyanike, pastor of St. Benedict the Moor Parish in Omaha, helps Angela Hardin, left, and Perlie Whitley adjust the altar linens on the new church altar Jan. 10. The women are part the parish’s worship and spiritual life committee.

Faith, prayers drive renovations

When Father Vitalis Anyanike celebrates Mass at the newly renovated St. Benedict the Moor Church in Omaha, he stands on the prayers of his parishioners.

The new marble tiles in the sanctuary were purchased individually by members of the parish, who wrote letters to God on the back of the white slabs before they were secured to the floor.

The parish initially planned to use the white tiles in just the altar area, but the prayer initiative produced enough money to cover the entire church floor.

The flooring, part of $48,000 in improvements made to the church in the last year, is just one example of how the parish’s faith has helped move and shape the renovation, which also includes a black granite altar and ambo, fresh ceiling paint and newly plastered walls.

For a parish with about 300 members and limited resources, just raising enough money without taking out a loan has been an act of faith, said Father Anyanike, pastor of St. Benedict the Moor and Holy Name parishes in north Omaha.

He said he’s proud of St. Benedict parishioners for their faith, generosity and hard work in "making something beautiful for God."

They will celebrate a blessing of the sanctuary and consecration of the altar with Archbishop George J. Lucas on Jan. 22, at an 11 a.m. Mass and reception.

Perlie Whitley, a sacristan at St. Benedict, said the renovations that began in February last year – a leap year – required a leap of faith.

"I had his faith but I didn’t have his vision," she said of her pastor’s plans for the renovations when he first outlined them. Not until "the middle of the summer things started falling into place," Whitley said.

Father Anyanike first pitched the idea for the renovations during a homily, offering $1,000 of his own for seed money. By that evening, he said, $7,000 was raised. In one month, $24,000 was raised.

Every Sunday, as part of his homily, the pastor explained the progress and took questions from parish members, making the work their own, he said.

People offered free labor – including Holy Name parishioner Felix Cortez, who is skilled in construction – working their regular jobs during the day and volunteering at St. Benedict at night, often until 11 p.m., Father Anyanike said.

Others helped financially in increments big and small. Some purchased a floor tile or a gallon of paint, while others made larger donations, such as the family of the late Velma Crumley, who paid for the black granite altar in her memory.

Father Anyanike said the altar is one of his favorite parts of the renovation because the parish took its former wooden altar and had it encased in the granite.

They pulled some items out of storage and made them part of the renovation, including the tabernacle and some candelabras on the altar. New alcoves created above the altar hold old statues of Ss. Joseph and Mary. Father Anyanike said he hopes statues of other saints – possibly of Ss. Martin de Porres, Josephine Bakhita, Peter Claver or other saints particularly meaningful to African Americans – eventually will fill the remaining four alcoves.

The beautified church, Father Anyanike said, is a sign of hope and renewal in a part of Omaha that has seen its share of struggles but also is being revitalized. The church structure is "an outward expression of who we are" and a beacon to the rest of the community, he said.

Founded nearly 100 years ago, the parish moved into its current building near 24th and Grant Streets in the 1950s, and the building was sorely in need of changes.

Replacing the church’s worn, brown linoleum floor for the white marble tiles and fresh paint and plaster have brightened the church but also made it more intimate, said Angela Hardin, chairwoman of the parish’s worship and spiritual life committee.

Though the renovations tightened some spaces, overall the church seems bigger, she said.

The first Mass in the new space was on Christmas Day. And since the improvements were made, attendance and participation increased at Sunday Mass, Father Anyanike said.

The parish will rest a couple months before another renovation phase begins, he said, including repairing kneelers and broken windows in the sanctuary and fixing up the social hall in the basement.

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