Story by Sally Finnegan, Photos by Daniel McCay
“You come here and you experience beauty and it draws you in to say ‘who are these people, what is this?’ That’s what we want to do,” said Rev. Brian O’Brien, former President of Bishop Kelley High School in Tulsa, new Pastor of St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church.
Twenty-two million dollars, 250 construction workers, and a few years of patience later, St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church opened its newly-built doors to the Stillwater community on March 11, 2018.
Though the sanctuary itself is designed to seat 817 people, around 1100 packed the church during the first Sunday Mass, O’Brien said. The Dedication Mass was filmed live and can be viewed on the St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church Facebook page.
Aside from the sanctuary, the campus is equipped with a gym, sand volleyball courts, Parish Hall with a full kitchen, parish offices and an education wing. A preschool serving ages 1-4 will open August 2018.
Named for a sixteenth-century missionary from Spain, St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church holds a gothic-inspired design that includes a cruciform layout of the building and barrel-vaulted ceiling, that points back to Christian tradition as early as the 1100s. The architects responsible named this unique mix of sixteenth-century style and Oklahoma-red-dirt brick exterior, ‘Cimarron Gothic.’
“It was in one way a nod to our patron, another just that it’s beautiful,” O’Brien said. “And so [the design is] unique to us in that it’s a new style of an old style—its gothic, but with local flavor.”
St. Francis Xavier was founded in the 1890s, but with the founding of the university, there became a need for college ministry. In the early 1960s, the originally intended college ministry grew, becoming its own parish. This year’s move from one building to another reestablishes the original intention for the Stillwater Catholic Community; that is, a parish for families, and, as Rev. Kerry Wakulich, pastor at St. John’s University Parish, says, “a home away from home” for college students.
Since the community’s ministries have been combined for a while now, the merge was much faster than it would have been without those ties. The LifeTeen youth group, Women’s Guild, etc. will all continue as usual.
The parish is in a discernment process for what to do with the remaining property on the corner of 6th and West streets.
Many people were involved in the completion of this project: from a graciously donated piece of land, to the support and excitement from the Stillwater community, to architects and engineers affiliated with the university. A parishioner in the food-service industry even specifically designed the kitchen, O’Brien said. “That’s what he does—he designs kitchens, and he goes to church here.”
The building of this church was “all this expertise from the town coming together with money, with land, with, almost this kind of synergy of the bishop wanting it, the priest getting on board, and then it all just came together,” O’Brien said. “It was a lot of very generous people thinking big.”
Though there are still some developments underway—plans to add stained glass to the sanctuary windows and statues added in alcoves—the space is breathtaking. Three large aisles navigate the long nave, heading north as you approach the altar, gliding through rows and rows of pews. One hundred eighty-eight ribs of “all different sizes and shapes” delayed construction; “these came as pieces, but then there was a lot of masonry work that had to be done,” O’Brien said.
Every image, every color, every decision made in the design and creation of this building was decided with the intention of bringing the viewer’s eye outside of herself or himself and into beauty. As the Cardinal Newman Society writes, “Beauty pleases not only the eye or ear, but also the intellect in a celebration of the integrity of our body and soul.”
“We believe so deeply in God and the power of Christ in our lives that this is the kind of place that God deserves—the majesty of it. It’s a sign of what we believe about God: we want to build Him a house that is as beautiful as it can be,” O’Brien said.
Wooden statues filling the reredos include Madonna and child; St. Joseph, foster father of Jesus; apostles John, Peter, Paul, and James; and the crucified Jesus—with a crown of thorns around His head made from an Italian thorn bush. The altar itself has a detailed wooden relief of the Last Supper, the moment when Jesus says ‘one of you will betray me.’ Moving from bottom to top, the far north wall of the sanctuary shows three main scenes in Jesus’ life: the last supper, the crucifixion, and the resurrection depicted by the upper rose window.
Lining the white and blue walls of the nave and altar, each statue is painted in real gold-leaf detail. Each painting depicts Jesus’ suffering and death on a cross as a reminder of the pure act of love that takes “away the sins of the world,” as is the central profession of the Christian faith.
“When people walk in here…their mind and their heart is raised to God. This is a church for everybody…to have somewhere beautiful to sit and pray and to come to church,” O’Brien said.
When asked what three words he would use to address the Stillwater community on the presence St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church wants to make, Rev. O’Brien had no hesitation: “You Belong Here.”
St. Francis will continue to hold tours upon request.
For more information on mass times, sacraments, events or to schedule individual or group tours call 405-372-6886 or visit https://sfxstillwater.org.