Parishioners delighted with church renovation that places focus on the altar

Burgess Bredo has been an architect for more than four decades.

He’s designed renovations for schools, seniors’ centres and municipal buildings. However, it’s the newly completed, $1.8-million renovation to his home parish church of St. Agnes in the Allandale neighbourhood of south Edmonton that’s a personal highlight.

It’s only the second church renovation he’s worked on from start to finish.

“Did I feel pressure? Absolutely,” Bredo chuckled. “When you start spending money, people get uptight about it. People don’t like changes to the church. But I like doing churches. I think it worked out well.”

Burgess Bredo

It’s a modest statement, considering the rave review the renovation has been getting from the St. Agnes parish community, and its pastor, Rev. Joby Augustin.

“Most of our parishioners who came back to see and experience the new church were all wonderstruck,” Augustin said. “They couldn’t even expect a church like that. They were going around taking pictures and some came to me personally and said, ‘Father, this is amazing.’”

The renovation included a redesign of the 6,850-square-foot main floor, adding a chapel, as well as a new ceiling, curved pews at a cost of more than $100,000, new windows with a new tint so the church is bright enough but not too hot in the summer, and the installation an air conditioning system.

It’s the biggest renovation to 14,000-square-foot church since the 1970s.

And the most prominent change is the relocation of the entrance. Prior to the renovation, the entrance was behind the altar, which is unlike most churches. It’s an anomaly that Father Augustin found “strange” ever since he was appointed pastor in 2013.

“It’s no more the altar or the tabernacle as the focal point of the people. They’re just like sitting in a conference room facing each other,” Augustin said. “It didn’t give me a sense of a church. Every church has the same structure as a human body. You have the legs, the body, the head and the church is the heart. That’s the old Jerusalem temple structure.”

Curved pews are a feature a new feature in St. Agnes Church, blessed by Archbishop Richard Smith.Cathy Ehm, Special to Grandin Media

“Now, as soon as you enter through the main door, with the curved pews, there’s a kind of feeling – people say that you’re being attracted to the church, pulled into the sanctuary,” Augustin said.

“In every corner of the church you can focus on the altar now.”

Bredo, a parishioner at St. Agnes for 28 years, agreed.

“The biggest change is that wherever you are sitting, that’s what you see, the altar. It’s a more intimate setting,” he said. “Before the renovations, depending on where you sat you could be looking at a bunch of people looking back at you.”

New windows are a part of the interior renovation of St. Agnes Church.Lincoln Ho, Grandin Media

Construction took about 5 ½ months and it was completed, as planned, by the end of November in time for Advent and Christmas.

During that time, the roughly 1,000 families who are registered at St. Agnes packed its twin parish, St. Anthony’s a few blocks away, for Mass. St. Anthony’s alone has about 600 registered families.

Raising money for the renovation was a challenge, and so was the city road maintenance outside the church during construction.

Rev. Joby Augustin

Nevertheless, those were overcome.

“This is truly a beautiful gift from the Lord in several ways,” said Don Wong, the business administrator of St. Agnes church for the past 16 years. “We started with the leadership, number one. Number two, somehow we had the gift of the funding. Number three, we also had the beautiful gift of having the right people.”

Wong said he’s proud that the renovation was completed on time and on budget.

St. Agnes raised the money through its own fundraising and the sale of the former Immaculate Heart of Mary church building to the Maronite Catholic community of Edmonton. The Archdiocese of Edmonton offered to provide a loan, but in the end it wasn’t needed.

“We are debt-free,” Augustin said. “But our challenge now is to bring back our building fund through fundraising programs” to eventually renovate St. Anthony’s church.

“I couldn’t say enough about my admiration for the pastor, Father Joby,” Wong said. “He had the insight, the vision and courage to get it going. Now when as you enter St. Agnes, you just feel, ‘Wow. This is an entirely different atmosphere.’ ”

Rev. Joby Augustin greets parishioners after the Dec. 8 blessing of St. Agnes Church.Cathy Ehm, Special to Grandin Media

On the Dec. 8-9 weekend when St. Agnes church reopened, Father Augustin was approached by a parishioner who promptly donated $50,000. A few days later, another parishioner made another sizable donation, insisting that the money should be spent on the final renovation details.

Bredo said he’s happy parishioners like the church renovation, even if some were skeptical at first.

“A year ago, when we had public meetings on the design, a woman came up to a member of the building committee and said ‘If you make these changes, I’m never coming back to St. Agnes again,” Bredo recalled. “Then on opening weekend, this lady was back and she said ‘This is so beautiful. I’m never going to another church again!’”

Bredo attended the early Mass on opening weekend. He couldn’t attend the Dec. 8th blessing of the church and consecrating of the altar by Archbishop Richard Smith – and he’s OK with that.

In his modesty, Bredo said: “I would have felt uncomfortable, so it’s just as well I wasn’t there.”