Ascending to renovate

Michelangelo didn't have a photographer on hand, but Ascension's painters did

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WEB EXTRAS: Audio slideshow
and 360 degree views from the scaffolding

How many pastors get a chance to go face-to-face with Jesus and his apostles?

"Being way up in the dome and seeing everything, it was just fabulous," says Rev. Larry McNally, pastor of Ascension Church. His parish has spent the last few months attending Mass with a backdrop of scaffolding, a byproduct of their decision to repaint the church to celebrate the parish's centennial.

Throughout the ordeal, McNally kept his eye on the bright side. It was an opportunity to see the church's distinctive dome-close up-not to mention an opportunity to make a few grand entrances. Three times, he started the service with a hearty "good morning" from the top of the scaffolding and descended from his "stairway to heaven." "Some people were laughing, some people were clapping and some of the older ladies were kind of horrified," McNally recalls. "It shows my immaturity, but I loved doing it."

The church makeover not only changed the dome's stormy crimson skies to ethereal blue ones, it also brought back a pattern of geometric gold-leaf stencils and highlighted a few of the church's existing unique touches: old-fashioned stained-glass windows, a front wall of red marble, a large altar and the high-ceilinged Romanesque architecture.

Click here for an audio slideshow of the Ascension project.

Speaking: Father McNally, pastor; Jim Grogan, parishioner; Lisa Rigali-Galvin, contractor, and Father McNally again. Singing: The Ascension Church Choir.

Photos by Josh Hawkins
Audio by Diana Oleszczuk

Painting the ceiling blue was a tough decision, but it brought the entire decoration together, according to John Rigali, who operates Daprato Rigali Studios, the company in charge of design and contracting.

"Ascension Church, the ascension into heaven, it's kind of fitting. It's the sky, the ascension, leaving the earth and heading toward the heavens."

The biggest challenge was getting the scaffolding all the way up into the dome. "We've worked with scissors lifts, rolling towers and permanent scaffolding," Rigali said.

The artistic Oak Park community was very open to highlighting the old-fashioned, unique portions of the design, according to Lisa Rigali-Galvin, who worked with the committee.

"Maybe because of Frank Lloyd Wright, there are a lot of people who understand architecture and design," she says. "They understood that the whole idea was to highlight the architecture."

The main focus of many Catholic churches, including Ascension, is on the altar and on the tabernacle, according to Rigali. With brighter colors on the ceiling, the mosaics on the altar were previously overshadowed, her brother John pointed out.

The price tag was $525,000, but the project ended up under budget, according to McNally. The contractors hope to be finished with the body of the church, by Dec. 15.

The community kept attending Mass throughout the renovation (except for two Sundays when it was held in the Pine Room social hall), even when the pews disappeared and different parts of the church were covered by scaffolding. McNally fondly remembers the overwhelming response to projects like helping to take the pews out. "We had so many people we had to send people home."

Strong community support made the project happen, according to McNally. "People, when they're next to each other, you don't even know who that person is, but you have the handshake of peace, you share in the Eucharist together," he says. "Everybody's very accepting."

Diana Oleszczuk

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