On a blisteringly cold day recently, Father George Foley wound his way around construction workers and stacks of marble floor tiles in his new St. Jude Catholic Church building, looking for a piece of a statue.
Finding things can be a challenge in the nearly finished 25,000-square-foot church, which towers over the adjacent church building that his congregation has long outgrown.
But the size of the church, the sanctuary seating of more than 1,700 people – roughly matching the capacities of the three largest churches in the 29-county Catholic Diocese of Fort Worth – isn’t all that will wow his parishioners when the church opens, which was set for Christmas Eve services.
Foley points to the two altars carved in white marble from Vietnam, one depicting in detail the Last Supper. A 10-foot crucifix, carved in Mexico, hangs from the 85-foot-high ceiling above the pulpit. Adding color to the wall next to the stage is a 160-year-old stained-glass window portraying John’s baptism of Christ – one of many artifacts Foley has collected from closed Catholic churches in the Northeast.
As many as 20 statues will populate the church, inside and out.
He said he’s just trying to build a nice home for his people.
“All I’m interested in is serving the Catholic population,” said Foley, a South Africa native who has led St. Jude for eight years. “I don’t have to be competitive in any way. I just do what the Lord puts on my plate.”
His masterpiece has yet to be revealed. Under wraps in the garage of the church rectory across the street sits a rare, Vatican-licensed replica of Michelangelo’s “Pieta,” which was donated to the church. Depicting the body of Christ held my his mother Mary after the Crucifixion, the 500-year-old Pieta, displayed in the Vatican, is one of the sculptures most revered by Christians around the world.
The life-size, carving of Italian Carrara marble for Foley’s church stands 7 1/2 feet tall, including the pedestal, and weighs 800 pounds.
The church vestibule will be the sculpture’s permanent home. Foley said he might get it located there by Christmas Eve, but it would remain under cover until the new bishop-elect of the Fort Worth diocese, Monsignor Michael Olson, consecrates the two altars in a service in early March. After the new St. Jude is consecrated, the church will be open to the public, said Foley, who welcomes people from other churches to visit the new sanctuary.
“If they sneak a peek, that’s OK,” Foley said. “But I just want it to be the piece de resistance.”
Only a handful to maybe a dozen of the Pieta replica sculptures reside in North America, according to various websites. Peter Flynn, vice chancellor of the diocese, said he knows of no other in his region.
Flynn said he hasn’t visited the Pieta, but he has seen the church and was overwhelmed.
“I can tell you, from my perspective, it’s size and orientation in terms of the roof – it raises your eyes right away,” he said. He said that if the symbolism “is of everybody’s eyes raising to the glory of God, it certain accomplishes that perspective.”
In a day’s work
Foley’s church construction oversight duties pack even more hours into his already compressed work schedule. He said he’s up at 6 a.m. and at church by 8 a.m. – working often until 9 p.m., often putting in 90 hours, seven days a week. In addition to running the church and taking care of the needs of his parishioners, he regularly visits Methodist Mansfield Medical Center and several assisted living centers, as well as the private prison in Venus.
He tries to take off one day a week, part of which he commits to golf.
But he said such work is what he signed up for when he was ordained as a priest 55 years ago. Twenty years ago he felt compelled to seek another challenge.
“I was called to America by virtue of the history books that I had read, and I chose Texas as the place most similar to South Africa,” he said. Climate for one, he said, and English-speaking people and similar sporting activities.
The Mansfield challenge has been rewarding, he said, and his work providing for his growing flock is praised by many, including Flynn.
Reaching for a description of Foley, Flynn said, “How about the Energizer Bunny? He’s Mr. Energy.”
“Everywhere he has been, he has the vision to move things forward,” Flynn added. “They were a growing parish, a growing community. And he came in and was able to bring everybody together around this effort. The fulfillment is what we see today. It’s a real testament to his leadership.”
Church and space
The church construction is valued at $7 million, half of which has already been raised by a fund-raising campaign launched four years ago.
The sanctuary seating is more than twice the 667-seat capacity of the current church at 500 E. Dallas St., which was built in 1971 and expanded in 2000. The new church will be the fifth built on St. Jude’s 12-acre site, the latest in a series dating back to the opening of the first in 1898.
Foley said the new space is much needed. About 2,500 people fill the church in six services throughout Saturday and Sunday, three in English and three in Spanish. He has help from Assistant Pastor Amado Vallejo.
Foley said he’s not sure how or whether he will combine services, because some of his parishioners may not have very flexible hours on the weekend.
But there will be plenty of room, at first.
“In eight or 10 years, we’ll be pretty full,” he said. “The church has averaged 6 percent growth a year. Eight years ago, we had 1,700 families. Now we have 3,400 families.”
Flynn said the growth of the Catholic population in the diocese, has been significant, which he attributes to the relocation of people and companies to North Texas from the northeast and other regions of the country, as well as immigrants from south of the border – and the conversion of non-Catholics.
“Ten years ago we probably had 400,000 Catholics,” he said. The number now is about 710,000 Catholics in 90 parishes within the diocese.
Bill Bellman, director of the RCIA – Right of Christian Initiation of Adults, an education course for people wanting to become Catholic – said he is looking forward to welcoming back the many families that have switched to other churches because of crowding at St. Jude.
“There are at least five churches that support this area,” he said. “We have more families that we serve than really all of those other churches put together.”
He said wife, Elizabeth Bellman, St. Jude’s youth minister, has counted a 20 percent increase in the number of middle and high school students attending Sunday school in the past year.
So Bellman makes no apologies for the size – or the beauty – of the church.
“I think the message we want to give is, this is the Lord’s house,” he said. “I think it should be a nice place.”
St. Jude Catholic Church
500 E. Dallas St.