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Godly grandeur
By Kathleen Ostrander

Certain churches have a sense of majesty, an overwhelming sense of dignity and a sense of a greater presence - a sense so strong it gives instant peace.

The atmosphere of serenity gives the building a personality; the outside architectural trappings embrace the personality like comforting arms.

St. Francis of Assisi Church at the motherhouse of the Hospital Sisters of St. Francis on LaVerna Road is such a church. Program director Sister Renita Brummer describes it as one of the arms being the motherhouse itself, the other arm is the Chiara Center and in the center is the church.

The church is part of the sisters' home and is not open to the public except on certain days of the week or on special occasions. It is part of the North American headquarters for the nuns, said Sister Brummer.

"You wouldn't want to invite the public to come and sit in your living room all the time?" she asked with a gentle smile. "This place is dedicated to meditation. It is a spiritual retreat, a place of rejuvenation for those who stay at the Chiara Center and for the sisters. We share it with the public, but we also ask that they respect our privacy."

Construction of the church began in 1920.The architectural firm that designed the building was Helmle and Helmle, and it is considered one of the company's finest works.

The exterior is Romanesque Revival, and it is built in the shape of a cross. It has double belfries, a large rose window in the front and a basilica-type construction over what is the sanctuary inside. There are two more rose windows on both sides of the sanctuary.

Completed in 1924, the interior is modeled after the Cathedral of Abbaye aux Hommes in France. When Sister Brummer and administrator Peter Garvey open the doors of the church, they step back to enjoy the visitors' reactions.  

It is, in a word, stunning.

The interior is thick terra cotta walls bolstered by a steel frame. There are recurring arches to direct the eye heavenward, explained Sister Brummer, with the highest arches over the sanctuary. The capitals -- or tops of the arches and columns on the main level -- are carved with grotesques and gargoyles.

They represent, Garvey said, the struggles of earthly life, and they are also believed to be able to scare away evil spirits. The carvings higher up in the church, or closer to heaven, resemble angels.

There are 12 Byzantine angels along the ceiling and above the balcony arches. On the back wall are two mosaics. One of them, Mary, the Sorrowful Mother, was displayed at the sisters' motherhouse in Germany.

The 14 Stations of the Cross are done in bronze and are along the left and right aisles. The richly toned stained-glass windows were done in St. Louis. At the left of the sanctuary is the Shrine of St. Therese of Lisieux. The walls and the frame of the area are covered with intricate carvings.

Near the shrine is a nativity scene that remains up year-round. St. Francis, explained Sister Brummer, wanted to bring the message of Jesus' birth to the villagers in Greccio, Italy, and he organized a living nativity scene. Directly to the left of the sanctuary area is an altar with a statute of Mary as Our Lady of Perpetual Help.

The altar itself is made of Italian and Greek marble. The statue is a combination of six types of marble, which help add the exquisite details of Mary's face. She is holding the infant Jesus, and one of his sandals has fallen off. The bare foot as well as Mary's hands are in perfect proportion and detail.

To the right of the sanctuary is St. Joseph's altar. It is also made of rare Italian and Greek marble, and the statue is made of four types of marble. The smaller chapel just to the right of St. Joseph's altar has two stained glass windows featuring St. Francis.

The imposing sanctuary at the center of the front of the church is enclosed with a terra cotta and marble communion rail as well as a bronze railing and marble tiles.

Mass is celebrated at the lower altar. The higher altar is designed to resemble the Ark of the Covenant. In the Old Testament, the Ark of the Covenant was a portable place of worship for the Hebrews. Guarded by two gold angels in an adoration pose, the tabernacle doors have the symbols of the four evangelists.

The walls of the sanctuary are painted red, and the spiral patterns are to symbolize prayers rising toward heaven. Stars are interspersed in the red, and they represent the healing ministry of the Hospital Sisters of St. Francis.

Surrounding the Altar of Repose are four marble pillars that support a bronze and gold-covered canopy, or baldacchino. In the center is a crown holding a globe, and at each of the corners are angels playing trumpets. Above the sanctuary is a huge mural of Christ as the All-Powerful. The dome contains 12 stained glass windows of angels and 750 stars to again symbolize the healing ministry of the Hospital Sisters of St. Francis.

Garvey said light pours through the windows at all times of the day. In the late afternoon, the sun coming through the top windows has a bright blue cast that is almost neon in appearance.

A shrine to Our Sorrowful Mother is on the right side of the sanctuary, across from the Shrine of St. Therese of Lisieux.

The balcony has stained glass windows along the upper walkway that show a dozen saints on each side. Viewed in greater detail, the stained glass in the rose windows shows richly elaborate scenes illustrating God the Holy Spirit, God the Father and God the Son.



Chiara Center offers place for spiritual reflection
To the north and east of downtown Springfield is a "Franciscan Place of Spirituality." Tranquil and quiet, peaceful and healing, a contemplative place for reflection and prayer -- these are just a few of the words used to describe the Chiara Center. The center is part of the ministry of peace and healing of the Hospital Sisters of St. Francis.

The Hospital Sisters have a long tradition of healing and caring for others in Springfield. In fact, they took care of Mary Todd Lincoln at her home during her final years.

The center, which is 2½ years old, sits on 300 rolling, wooded acres in a park-like setting on the site of the former St. John's Tuberculosis Sanitarium and Crippled Children's Hospital. By 1972, the buildings were vacant, and the sisters pragmatically thought they should make use of the space. The old building was demolished, and in its place a new facility -- along with a new ministry -- began.

Sister Renita Brummer, the program's director, is one of three spiritual directors on staff. She is a native of Effingham and has been in Springfield for three years. By training, she is a teacher. She sees the center as a place for anyone in need of repair.

"It's very scenic, very peaceful," she said. "In our time in our culture, it is so critical to offer healing of spirit and mind. Our times are so fast-paced, and it's a fractured time for relationships, families, churches, communities. We need a sense of quiet."

The word Chiara is Italian for the name Clare. The significance here is St. Clare, the 13th century saint of Assisi. She was a contemporary of St. Francis of Assisi. As outgoing as he was known to be, she was reflective and had a "tremendous energy and light for healing," according to Sister Brummer.

"We all need to step back and tend that inner journey, like Chiara did," she said. "We need that light within us, especially when things get dark."

With that in mind, the design of the facility is light with large windows that bring in the creation of the outdoors, Sister Brummer said.

The Chiara Center's mission statement is as follows: "Chiara Center is a faith community dedicated to the discovery and healing presence of God within one's self, everyday life, relationships and all of creation. All programs, services and hospitality are grounded in the spirit and heritage of Francis and Clare of Assisi."

There are retreats and days of prayer throughout the year that are available to individuals, couples and groups. Groups and individuals are welcome to take part in retreats, spiritual development programs and spiritual renewal, to name only a few. Groups of up to 150 can schedule meetings and conferences there, too.

The center has 30 guest rooms with private baths, and there is food service. Between the striking St. Francis of Assisi Church, the large grounds and its shrines, there is plenty of opportunity, time and space for prayer, meditation and relaxing walks. It is a place to come and renew one's self from the troubles of the modern world. Simplicity reigns there. 

"Creation tells us how to enter healing, just as we see trees shedding their leaves," Sister Brummer said. "This is an invitation to tend to our inner journey."

-- John Moody



Nuns' use of property goes back to 1919
The Hospital Sisters of St. Francis originally lived and worked at St. John's Hospital. They arrived at the hospital in 1875, and it was decided in 1919 that some of the sisters would start living at the LaVerna Road property, which was a tuberculosis sanitarium at that time.

Administrator Peter Garvey said at one time the railroad ran out to the property, and the sanitarium was the last stop on the line. A site adjacent to the 300 acres was once considered as a site for Lake Springfield.

The area served as a treatment facility for tuberculosis patients until 1973. Parts of the sanitarium were then torn down, and the estate became the motherhouse. Program director Sister Renita Brummer said postulants, novices and professed sisters receive their religious formation at the motherhouse and return several times throughout the year for meetings, visits and retreats.

The adjoining Chiara Center is available for conferences and retreats. It opened in 2007.

The Hospital Sisters of St. Francis is an international, multicultural congregation of Franciscan Sisters founded in Telgte, Germany, in 1844. The American Province, based in Springfield, was founded in November 1875.



Nativity festival
The Franciscan Nativity Festival is an annual featured event at the Franciscan Life Center.

The festival is free and open to the public, and it features a tour of St. Francis of Assisi Church as well as 120 nativity sets from around the world. The 2009 schedule is:

  • Friday, Dec. 4; 2-7 p.m.
  • Saturday, Dec. 5; noon-4 p.m.
  • Sunday, Dec. 6; noon-4 p.m.

The church will play host to a Liturgical Arts Festival concert in May 2010.

Individuals and groups can experience the beauty, stillness and unique Franciscan history of Chiara Center. St. Francis of Assisi Church and the grounds are included in tours. Guided tours are offered on the first and third Tuesday of each month from 1 to 2:30 p.m. Call 523-0901 to reserve a place in a tour or to schedule a group tour.

The Chiara Center is a ministry of the Hospital Sisters of St. Francis, 4875 LaVerna Road.

Visit the Chiara Center Web site at chiaracenter.org; prayer requests can be submitted to the Hospital Sisters of St. Francis at the hospitalsisters.org Web site. They will remember the request during daily prayers.



Story published Friday, November 6, 2009 ( Volume 4, Number 6 )

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