Church blends old with new

By Rachele Smith and Richard Meek

The Catholic Commentator

A sense of awe and wonder.”

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The church is a neo-Gothic cruciform design, featuring artistic elements of Catholic worship. Photos by Richard Meek | The Catholic Commentator


That’s what Father Jeff Bayhi, pastor of St. John the Baptist Church in Zachary, hoped his parishioners would experience as they gathered together for the dedication of the parish’s newly built church on April 30.

He was right.

Bishop Robert W. Muench dedicated the new church in front of a standing-room-only crowd, calling the new building a “spectacular house of God.”

“Today, the parish makes history for itself, for the Diocese of Baton Rouge, the church universal and the city of Zachary,” Bishop Muench said in his homily. “There is a special exuberance about things that are new, awe-inspiring. This house of God fulfills all of those things and more.”

Built in a neo-Gothic, cruciform design, the 18,000 square foot church features artistic elements of Catholic worship, beautifully marrying the traditional call to prayer with contemporary faith.

In the apse, a stunning 27-foot-high altar stands. Purchased from a closed church in Syracuse, New York, the altar showcases statues of St. Ambrose and St. Athanasius dating to the 1800s along with statues of St. Peter Julian Eymard and St. Peter Canisius.

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The new church is defined by a 27-foot-high altar, purchased from Holy Trinity Church in Syracuse, New York, which is now closed. The altar showcases statutes of St. Ambrose and St. Athanasius dating to the 1800s along with statues of St. Peter Julian Eymard and St. Peter Canisus. Hanging over the altar is an 18-foot crucifix. 


“The altar is a theology lesson,” Father Bayhi said while the church was under construction.

The ornate wooden altar contains a relic from St. Marianne Cope OSF, who was also known as St. Marianne of Molokai.

St. Marianne Cope joined the Sisters of St. Francis in Syracuse, but later traveled to the Hawaiian island of Molokai at the request of Father Damien de Veuster (today St. Damien of Molokai) to help care for Hansen’s disease patients.

Father Bayhi said the gift of St. Marianne Cope’s relic is a blessing to the Zachary community.

Hanging over the altar is a beautiful 18-foot crucifix.

Another feature is the Stations of the Cross. Similar to the high altar, the Stations of the Cross were also obtained from the former Holy Trinity Church in Syracuse, which was converted into a mosque in 2015.

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Hospitaler Sisters of Mercy spread incense as part of the incensation of the church. Incense was burned on the altar to signify that Christ’s sacrifice ascends to God as an odor of sweetness and also to signify that the people’s prayers rise up, reaching the throne of God.


Each station stands nine feet tall and was crafted by German artist Osweld Voekel, who lived from 1873-1952. Father Bayhi said Voekel only created three complete sets of the stations, and St. John has the only complete set in the world.

Father Bayhi said he discovered the altar, stations and other items were available while giving a retreat for priests in Rome several years ago.

Other items secured from the Syracuse church, which was established in 1891 and shuttered in 2010 following financial reasons as well as a decline in membership and a priest shortage, include the St. Joseph’s altar, baptismal font, light fixtures, chandeliers, furniture for the sacristy, a monstrance, vestments and a statue of the Blessed Mother.

Our Lady’s statue has a unique history of its own. It was completed in 1788 and is made out of egg whites and saw dust.

Father Bayhi said several fixtures and sacred art from other closed churches were also given new life in St. John. The solid oak pews, 12 stained glass windows, Stations of the Cross for an outdoor meditation garden and a holy water font were purchased from former churches in the Diocese of Allentown, Pennsylvania.

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The Stations of the Cross were also purchased from the former Holy Trinity Church in Syracuse, New York. Each station stands nine feet tall and was crafted by German artist Osweld Voekel. Voekel crafted three sets of stations and St. John has the only remaining full set.


“This is God’s house,” said Father Bayhi, adding that he hopes parishioners feel a sense of reverence and prayer as well as a sense of community as they come together to glorify God.

Completed in 19 months, the new St. John Church seats more than 800 people, almost doubling the capacity of its former church, which was completed in 1974.

“This area is growing considerably,” Father Bayhi said, adding that many young families are moving into the area, which has consistently ranked high in state and U.S. Department of Education school reports.

“We have a lot of babies in church; that’s a healthy sign,” he added.

Since 2004, the number of families has grown from 484 to 1400.

According to Father Bayhi, the new church cost is $7.5 million, a price tag that quickly swelled after plans to build a new church for the growing parish were considered in 2003. A year later, when a building campaign was launched under the leadership of then-pastor Father Kenneth Laird, the projected cost of construction was estimated at $3.75 million. However, the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 dramatically raised that number. “When we think about this church and reflect on the building of it, (we understand) it will serve this community for the next 100 years,” Father Bayhi said, adding,

“We are called to serve God and this is what we hope we are doing in building this type of church.”

Father Bayhi said there are plans to add an adoration chapel, although the funding still needs to be raised to reach that goal.

“We are very, very proud,” Father Bayhi said at the conclusion of the dedication Mass. “This is a beginning. We hope to continue to grow.”

“Let’s pray we serve this community with great faith, great fidelity,” he added.

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Pastor Father Jeff Bayhi was the driving force behind the construction of the church, which checked in at a cost of $7.5 million. The church seats approximately 800 people, more than double the size of the previous church.