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Decorah parish celebrates centennial, renovation project coming

St. Benedict raises $2.91 million through capital campaign

By Amanda Huinker
Special to The Witness

DECORAH — “Building Our Future Together” is the theme of St. Benedict Catholic Church’s centennial celebration. The year 2017 marks 100 years for the church at its current location on the corner of Court and Main Streets. An anniversary of this significance serves as a time for the church to reflect and be thankful for the generosity, sacrifice and foresight of its past members. Their vision built a beautiful church that has allowed the parish and its parishioners to grow, flourish and serve for the past century.

St. Benedict’s pastor, Father Phillip Gibbs, has encouraged today’s parishioners to look at this centennial as an opportunity to reflect in another way as well — to think and plan like their predecessors, to evaluate the church’s current needs and prepare for the generations the church will serve throughout the next 100 years.

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With that future in mind, St. Benedict’s has embarked on a $3 million capital campaign — the “Building Our Future Together” campaign — which is focused on renovating the church and building an addition. The campaign began in late September 2016, and as of March of this year, the church has reached 97 percent of its goal. Church members have currently pledged $2.91 million, with some donations still arriving.

St. Benedict Parish was established by the archdiocese in 1857. Construction of the first church at 512 East Broadway in Decorah took place in 1864. The congregation grew, and over time the church became too small to accommodate parishioners. Talk of building a new church ensued.

Construction of the present St. Benedict Church took place in 1917. The cost of this structure was $60,000, all of which was raised by approximately 100 parish families. In 1941, the church underwent extensive redecoration that involved painting walls and installing stained glass windows. The result was the church today’s parishioners know.

It had been many years since a major renovation occurred within the church, and by 2014, the parish began evaluating the needs of the Decorah Catholic community, the needs of the surrounding area’s Catholic communities and the needs of the building itself. During that process, parishioners indicated a strong preference for remodeling their existing church rather than building a new structure.

“The church has served as the centerpiece of the Catholic faith in Decorah for many generations,” said Don Elsbernd, chairman of St. Benedict’s pastoral council and a member of the parish’s renovation and capital campaign committees.

“For over 100 years, families have had baptisms, weddings, funerals, attended week­ly Mass, sent their children to St. Benedict’s School as well as many, many other activities within the walls of this particular church building,” he said. “It symbolizes the memories and the faith journey of many of its parishioners, so keeping the existing facility was a high priority.”

Design plans for a renovation and an addition were created that addressed the updates the church needed, while maintaining all the original components of the church and carefully preserving the structure’s beauty and historical integrity.

On street level, the design plans call for a southern-facing addition to provide a much-needed entrance (including a portico) and a welcoming/gathering space.

From this new main entrance, parishioners will be able to enter a new chapel, access new restrooms and an elevator, use an additional staircase to get to the balcony of the sanctuary and enter the main sanctuary area. The chapel, which also includes a confessional, will have a retracting wall so that it can be open to the main sanctuary area at times when overflow seating is necessary. Inside the sanctuary, the altar will be extended and a few pews removed to allow for better viewing for all, handicap accessibility, and more space for musicians and the choir.

Under the plans, the basement portion of the parish will be transformed into a more welcoming area. A new kitchen will be installed along with additional rest­rooms and a meeting space. The elevator will provide much improved handicap accessibility to the basement. Additionally, the parish hall will be updated.

All these changes will cost approximately $3 million. If the capital campaign can exceed this amount, additional updates will take place inside the main sanctuary, including replacing the pews, repainting the walls, replacing the flooring and carpet, and installing new lights and an improved sound system.

The church will break ground late this spring. If all goes as scheduled, the addition and renovation will be completed by Easter 2018.

St. Benedict’s parishioners have overwhelmingly shown support for the “Building Our Future Together” campaign through monetary donations, by volunteering their time toward campaign efforts, and by offering prayers and encouragement along the way.

“The parish has really come together to support this project,” Elsbernd said. “I am excited to be at this stage of the process and look forward to construction starting soon. It has been a multi-year journey for the parishioners, and all the effort and energy of many parishioners has resulted in a project with widespread support. Looking back, it is clear that the Holy Spirit has been guiding us.”

Today, St. Benedict’s serves more than 950 families. The parish is an integral part of Decorah’s history and its faith community, and it stands in the heart of the downtown of the city and contributes to numerous programs throughout the Decorah area, which support the health and well being of Winneshiek County.

Elsbernd said that once the remodel is complete, St. Benedict’s will have a more modern functional facility that will allow the parish to serve its parishioners and the community well into the future.

“It will provide a space for Catholic families in Decorah to grow and thrive and make many new memories for generations to come,” he reflected. “Our forefathers provided this space for us to worship, and we must provide a space for those who will follow us.”

Huinker is a parishioner at St. Benedict in Decorah. Witness Editorial Assistant Jill Kruse contributed to this article.


St. Benedict Church in Decorah is pictured in a 2011 photo. The building, erected in 1917, underwent a major renovation in 1941. (John Glover photo)