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When I stepped into St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Helena for the first time, I remembered what it was like to stand in a darkened space that someone had crafted and planned. I was so grateful I felt for the few moments I got to spend there.
We were touring Helena, and somehow this church was mentioned, St. Mary’s Cathedral. Charles Eames designed it, said our host. I have since learned who he is, but at the moment I didn’t. I’m so glad others on the trip did, and asked to stop. It wasn’t originally on our itinerary.
The building was stark, yet somehow warm and tender. It was in some ways very much like the small Lutheran church I grew up in: long and narrow, with rows of pews under tall, skinny stained glass. The biggest difference was the light fixtures – round, with a sort of cover on them that looked crooked to me.
I climbed the stairs and looked over the room, noticing that the crooked covers had stars cut out of them, which made me like them a little better. As I stood there, I overheard our guide explaining the lights, which I had assumed were simply an artsy choice. She, however, was saying that the fixtures were designed by Eames himself.
As you walk toward the altar for communion, she said, you see the lights covered. Dark, like our sin. And then, when you’ve taken communion and turn to go back, you see the light in full. Uncovered. Bright.
I’m going to hold this in my head and heart over the next few weeks – that a simple touch can be a powerful symbol, that the thought and care and work put into planning can make a welcome difference, even much later, even to a stranger.
If you find yourself in Helena, please go visit this church. I’m told it’s usually pretty easy to find the priest, Father Honest (yes, really), since he lives next door. You will enjoy talking with him and hearing his beautiful Tanzanian accent as much as you will enjoy spending a few moments in this wonderful place.
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