St. Catherine of Siena: A blessed parish
The two spires that dominate the landscape in northwest Wichita emerged out of what was just a weed patch 12 years ago.
“There wasn’t anything out there,” Father Dan Spexarth said after driving to the location on North Ridge Road in Wichita.
“Bishop Jackels said there were a lot of Catholics living in northwest Wichita and we suspect it’s going to grow,” Father Spexarth said. “So he asked me to come out here and put some people together to try to do something beautiful to give honor to God and serve the needs of the people.”
Church to be blessed Oct. 4
That building, St. Catherine of Siena Church, is scheduled to be blessed and dedicated Sunday, Oct. 4. The large, cruciform church is the last phase of the parish’s multi-stage building project.
The parish had humble beginnings. Father Spexarth didn’t even have a tent to sleep in out in that weed patch after being named pastor.
“I found a room out at the Red Coach Inn out on I-35 and checked into room 102. I remember I picked it because each room had two beds so I could use one for an office and I could sleep on the other one. It had free internet and included one meal!”
Father Spexarth said he initially began reading everything he could about the parish’s namesake. “I decided that the first person I wanted to fall in love with was Catherine of Siena.”
She is a doctor of the church and is known for her great love of the poor and the sick, he said.
“So I spent almost two weeks living at the Red Coach Inn and I put an ad in the newspaper saying if you live in Zip Code 67205 and you’ll open your home to me I’d like to come and tell you a little bit about what we want to do,” he said.
Parish generously responded
The Catholics in 67205 responded immediately.
“They opened their homes to me,” he said. “I would say Mass in people’s basements and their living rooms and their patios and ask them to invite some of their neighbors. I said: ‘Would you like to be a part of something very new, almost apostolic?’ And we did that for three months.”
The fledgling parish of 111 families found a metal building near the parish building site and celebrated its first Mass in September of 2008. St. Catherine of Siena Parish now has over 1,500 families.
A transitional church completed in 2011 on the parish’s 15-acre site was part of the first phase of construction. The school, which first rang its bells in 2011, started with 64 children in kindergarten and first and second grades housed in what are now parish meeting rooms and a trailer.
In 2014 the parish finished its school for children in kindergarten through eighth grade and began plans for the church now under construction that will be blessed and dedicated on Oct. 2.
Msgr. Gilsenan was beloved
Father Spexarth said in addition to all of the parishioners and others who assisted in the building efforts, Monsignor John Gilsenan also lent a hand.
The pastor said he was living in the nearby Via Christi Village, an assisted living facility, when the late Msgr. Gilsenan came to live with him.
“He has been loved around here and beloved everywhere,” Fr. Spexarth said, “and so the parish bought us a patio home.”
Msgr. Gilsenan was ready to retire but wasn’t ready to live at the Priest Retirement Center. “So I said come and help me,” Fr. Spexarth said. “The only thing he said was: ‘Do you have a garage? I’m 78 and I’m too old to scrape windows!’
“And so he moved in with me and was here five years – saying Mass and being attentive to the people in a way I couldn’t because I was going to all of these meetings.”
Msgr. Gilsenan, loved by all who knew him for his warm personality and Irish wit, passed away in 2016.
The pastor said parishioners are excited about the new church. He said those who have a favorite pew will be able to sit in exactly the same spot in exactly the same pew after the seating is moved from the current worship space to the new church.
The pews will be the same and the view in the church will be similar, he said. “We’re just adding transepts which will take us from a capacity of 800 to 1,200.”
The project was one of the most difficult in his career, he said, but at the same time, it was easy.
“One of the things I’ve learned in 36 years is you don’t have to do it by yourself. There are people who have great skills,” he said.
“The greatest compliment anybody ever gave me is they told me I know how to pick good people and I’ve done that in these committees. I basically got people together, very bright people, very God-loving people, very dedicated Catholic people, to say let’s do this, let’s do this the right way, let’s build something that’s going to be here for a 1,000 years.”
Building project an adventure
Father Spexarth described it as an adventure.
“I’ve had tremendous help from a lot of people. In fact, if people knew exactly how little I’ve actually done, they would be shocked. It’s simply putting people together turning on the light – let’s do something beautiful for God.”
Adding to the beauty will be the windows.
The stained glass windows that will illuminate the church are the seven signs in the Gospel of John: Turning water into wine, healing an official’s son, healing at the pool of Bethesda, feeding of the 5,000, walking on water, healing of the man born blind, and the raising of Lazarus from the dead.
“It just worked out that seven windows would be perfect,” he said. “Where the other evangelists Matthew, Mark, and Luke call miracles, John call signs. They point to something.”
Fr. Spexarth said he would like the viewer to understand that Jesus wasn’t just a nice man or a smart man, but that Jesus is divine. “He’s the Son of God and he’s here with us. And if that can give consolation and strength to people, not just in this age but for a 1,000 years, then we’ll have accomplished what we tried to do.”