COLUMBIA — An overflow crowd of more than 1,000 people gathered Sunday afternoon to dedicate and celebrate the new Immaculate Conception Catholic Church.
Bishop Edward K. Braxton, the Belleville Diocese bishop, presided over a three-hour ceremony that was the culmination of a 16-year journey full of toil and hope for parishioners in one of the fastest-growing corners of metro St. Louis.
Monsignor Carl Scherrer, the church pastor, shook hands with dozens of well-wishers in the new church's foyer following the dedication ceremony and Mass.
Looking both weary and pleased, Scherrer called the new church "a wonderful fulfillment of a dream the parish has had for many, many years."
The new church, located on a hill overlooking rolling fields and prosperous new subdivisions, and located just off Interstate 255, features elevators to make the house of worship accessible to people in wheelchairs.
"And so we're happy to accommodate everyone and make everything accessible," Scherrer said.
As for the church, "We hope it helps us to be a stronger community and make us a holier people and truly be the church that we are called to be," he said.
The dedication ceremony was full of highlights that emphasized the church's link to ancient rites and modern technology.
Early on in the ceremony, Braxton looked out upon the packed church and declared, "We now anoint this altar, we now anoint this sacred space..."
In a repetition of a rite nearly as old as Christianity, the bishop poured from a pitcher a sacred chrism of holy oil onto the marble, square-shaped altar. The bishop used his right hand to spread the oil across every inch of the altar.
A closed-circuit video camera captured Braxton's movements, which were televised on three flat screen, high-def televisions that had been set up for the people seated on folding chairs in the foyer.
Later, at the end of the Mass, church bell ringer Bill Kilian stood in front of the altar and faced the crowd. At Scherrer's signal, Kilian pushed a button on the remote control in his hands. Suddenly the peal of church bells -- electronically activated in the bell tower outside -- filled the early evening air.
Clearly delighted, the parishoners reacted with loud, sustained applause.
Roland Schilling, a parish member for 18 years, called Sunday's dedication of the new Immaculate Conception "a great renewal, a reopening."
Schilling noted that the old Immaculate Conception Church ended its regular Sunday services a week ago.
"So this opens everything up again," he said.
Korte and Luitjohan Contractors Inc., of Highland, built the church, while LePique and Orne Architects, of St. Charles, Mo., designed it.
The old church, built in 1867, will continue to serve as a house of worship for children at the parish grade school in downtown Columbia, until a new parish school is built by the next church.
If the right offer from the right buyer comes up, the parish might consider selling the old church building, Scherrer said.
One of the things that made the dedication of the new Immaculate Conception so noteworthy Sunday is the fact that it bucks a trend in the Belleville Diocese, as well as many other Catholic dioceses nationwide: Immaculate continues to grow and thrive, even as Catholic churches elsewhere are shutting down and consolidating because of dwindling attendance or problems finding parish priests.
Adam Randle, who moved with his young family to Monroe County nine years ago from St. Louis County, said he isn't surprised by Immaculate Conception's success.
"There's a lot of great Catholic families in this area," Randle said. "A strong parish, a strong community."