Tradition Meets Modernity at the New St. John the Baptist Church
Story by Lisa Biedenbach • Photos by E.L. Hubbard
How to marry the tradition of an established church in downtown Harrison with a new worship space to be built on nearby farmland was a daunting challenge,” said Father Jeff Kemper, pastor of St. John the Baptist Church, who took part in the dedication of he new church June 1. “What at first seemed reversals during the planning and building process ended up as blessings.”
The first St. John the Baptist church built in 1851 served primarily poor immigrant Germans who settled on the border of Ohio and Indiana. As the parish grew by leaps and bounds over many decades with new homes, new businesses and new parishioners, St. John the Baptist built three church – each one bigger to accommodate the swelling growth of its membership.
“When I was appointed pastor, Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk told me I had to build a new church because the area was growing,” Father Kemper recalled. “I first needed to see how committed to building a new church the parishioners were and then I had to stabilize the finances before any building could be considered.”
After three years as new pastor, Father Kemper called a parish convocation to discuss the parish as a whole and discern the next direction.
“Parishioners identified a new church as the top priority,” Kemper said, “The options were to raze the existing church and rebuild on the existing site in downtown Harrison, or to build a new church on 26 acres of farmland that then-pastor Father Edward Shine had purchased in 2003. We formed the Future Home Committee in April 2013, chaired by parishioner Tom Gruber, to research options and present a plan to the parish.”
Father Kemper said it was a slow, phased process of holding meetings, building consensus and raising funds to make sure the parish was on board with building and everyone was heard. Gruber headed the 10-person Future Home Committee (FHC) that included Father Kemper, the business manager and eight parishioners with a cross-section of skills needed for building a church.
“The land was half paid off by the time we began building,” Gruber said. “We selected Entheos Architects in Indianapolis to build the church because they focused solely on churches and church-related projects.”
Entheos created a master plan for an entire parish plant—new church, school, offices and athletic fields – that would fit on the purchased land and allow construction to be phased in as needed.
“After much discussion with parishioners, it became clear people wanted to build on a new site. And two items were most important: the new church had to look like a church, and the tabernacle had to be in clear view,” Gruber said.
Fundraising was done in three phases, starting in fall 2014 and ending in 2017, Gruber said. “Because the initial bid from the contractor was higher than the original funds raised, we began phase two to raise the funds needed for construction. We began phase three to cover costs of outfitting the church and created a book called “Treasures of the Church” that identified items people could donate, such as liturgical vessels, statues, furniture, altar, etc. Father Kemper and I never thought we could raise the funds needed, but the Holy Spirit guided us the whole way, and people were very generous.” One costly item during the building process, Gruber said, was bringing in utilities—water, gas, electric—to farmland.
Designed to seat 840, the new church, with minimal change, can easily expand to accommodate 1,200 by pushing out the front. When expansion is needed, the master plan allows for a parish center to the left side of the church, an 18-classroom school with a gym and cafeteria on the right side, and athletic fields behind the church. Father Kemper added that no plans exist now for more building: “We want to get used to our new space and give breathing room to people who have donated.”
Pastoral Minister Karen Kane, who came aboard at St. John the Baptist in December 2018 after serving as Worship Office director for the archdiocese, assisted with the initial design and ongoing phases.
“My role as Worship Office director was to ensure that the design met the liturgical demands of the Catholic Church and the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. This was not difficult because Father Kemper is a liturgist and taught liturgy at the seminary for 17 years,” Kane said.
Kane named the main elements of the new church:
♦ A plaza outside the front doors invites people to gather for special liturgies, such as the dedication of the church, Palm Sunday procession and Easter Vigil rituals.
♦ A large gathering space inside the front doors allows for serving food and beverages, such as coffee and donuts after Mass, and helps build community.
♦ Doors into the main nave signify the moment when a person crosses the threshold into the world of the sacred, coming from death to new life. A few steps more and one encounters the large immersion baptismal font, a fuller sign of baptism, where people can dip fingers into baptismal waters and sign themselves as a reminder of their own baptism.
♦ The main nave blends the traditional with the liturgy of the Second Vatican Council. “The new church allows people to gather on three sides of the altar and experience a greater sense of community,” Kane said
♦“The 6-foot square wooden sanctuary altar with a stone top, as well as the ambo and presidential chair, also made of wood, symbolizes Christ’s present in our midst,” Kane said.
♦ Blessed Sacrament Chapel sits directly behind the sanctuary where the Eucharist is reserved in full view 24 hours a day, 7 days a week from either side of art glass separating the chapel and the sanctuary.
♦ Stained glass windows, cleaned and restored from the old church, are placed lower on walls to be seen close up.
♦ Stations of the Cross were restored from the original old church.
♦ Statues of Mary and St. Joseph from other churches were purchased and restored and each placed in its own alcove.
♦ There is a beautiful and airy chapel to the left of the main nave for the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
♦ Other spaces include a sacristy at the back of the nave, and restrooms, meeting rooms and a small kitchen off the gathering space.
One challenge of a new and bigger church, Father Kemper and Kane said, was training existing and new ministers and ushers on where and how to move. Kemper said the old church will be used for school Masses, and parish offices will be moved eventually.
The new sacred space makes Kemper feel more engaged while preaching because “people can see me and I can connect better with them,” he said. “Most everyone I have spoken to loves the new church. People are staying longer after Mass to chat. I observe a greater sacredness in the new church and more ritual reverence.”