By Bonny Van

The Catholic Commentator 

At 66 years old, Immaculate Conception Church in Baton Rouge is undergoing a facelift, but it’s more than just a cosmetic procedure. The church is going through a massive renovation that will serve the parishioners in a way that has been, for lack of a better term, challenging.  

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A large new foyer is being added to the church for families to gather and visit before and after Mass. Photos by Richard Meek | The Catholic Commentator

 

“What we needed was more room,” explained pastor Father Tom Clark SJ. “So we’re building a large foyer onto the front of the church and we’re opening up the sanctuary.” 

According to Father Clark, the church, which has 735 families, was built in the 1950s according to liturgical norms of that time. Sacristies were built on either side of the altar, making for a “pretty small sanctuary.”  

“So we’re removing those two sacristies and opening up the sanctuary to make a larger sanctuary,” noted Father Clark. “Then onto the back of the church we built an addition which is housing a new sacristy. And, we’re doing a lot of new wiring, new bathrooms, new flooring, new sound system, new benches … So, it’s sort of just a modernization; updating the infrastructure of the church as well.”  

Scaffolding surrounds the outside of the brick building on Curtis Street. A large dumpster and other construction equipment occupy the majority of the parking lot.  

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Father Tom Clark and Ron Lewis talk about the massive work being at Immaculate Conception Church in Baton Rouge. Lewis, a retired plant engineer, is overseeing the project which includes adding more space to the church and updating the infrastructure.  

 

Small boards mark a pathway into the building, where nails, dirt and more boards litter the floor while scaffolding takes up the majority of the space throughout. Gone are the original oak pews, donated to smaller area churches or purchased by some parishioners. Other interior furnishings were put in storage.  

The stained glass windows and the altar are covered with plywood for protection from the work as the sound of ban saws, hammers and the chatter of workmen echo throughout the cavernous church.  

According to Father Clark, renovation talks began in the 1990s, and plans were even drawn up. But the idea fell to the wayside until five years ago when the parish began “seriously talking about it.” However, another setback came with the 2016 flood when so many families were affected.  

“This is all possible because of the generosity of the parishioners,” Father Clark stated. “People have made pledges and they’ve been extremely generous in fulfilling those pledges. The generosity of members of the parish and their dedication has been significant.”  

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 Electricians work on wiring in the new foyer, which will also include storage space and new bathrooms.  

 

Heading up this massive operation is Ron Lewis, a retired plant engineer and chair of the church’s financial advisory committee. Lewis, a parishioner at Immaculate Conception since 1997, said he spends at least three days a week on site overseeing the work while also helping with the care of his mother in New Orleans.  

“We’re adding another 2,000 square feet – the original church was about 5,000 square feet,” said Lewis. “When (Father Clark) found out I was an engineer he put me to work. So, I’ve been enjoying it because I built chemical plants all my life so now, I’m doing what he’s asked me to do. I’m his engineer!”  

Since January, Mass at Immaculate Conception has been celebrated in the parish activity center. Other events have also been held there, including baptisms. The Parish School of Religion (PRS) classes are held in the classrooms just off the main hall.  

Weddings and funerals have been held at other area churches including St. Paul the Apostle Church in Baton Rouge, Sacred Heart of Jesus Church in Baton Rouge and St. Isidore the Farmer Church in Baker. 

Though the temporary accommodations have presented challenges, such as one group leaving Mass while another is arriving, it has also added a new dimension to the celebration of Mass, according to Father Clark.  

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Plywood also covers the altar to protect it. A newly constructed baptismal font is located on the right of the altar.  

 

“Going into a new space makes you relate to one another in a different experience of the Mass,” explained Father Clark. “So, that’s been very, very positive. Everyone’s sitting in different seats and sitting closer together and maybe going to different Masses in order to spread the numbers out over three Masses so we fit in (the activity center).”  

But while the change of scenery has been nice, Father Clark said the novelty has worn off and “we’re getting anxious to go back to church.” He added the recent framing of the large new foyer has also generated excitement among parishioners.  

Father Clark said along with the financial advisory committee, there is also a renovation committee and there have been meetings with the parish along with focus groups “to get people’s input and make them feel part of” the renovation process. He also noted that many parishioners have been volunteering, “so the burden of the (new) construction has really been shared by many people.”  

The construction of the church itself in 1952 has a similar history, according to Father Clark, with many members of the parish who were bricklayers, carpenters and electricians volunteering their Saturdays to build the church.  

“It took a year to build, and it was a real community event,” explained Father Clark. “So the people in the church have always felt that this was their church – it was built by their fathers and their grandfathers. So there was a really strong sense that their ancestors had built this church, so I think we feel very much part of them. And now we are fixing up the church – as they handed the church on to us, we are getting ready to hand the church on to a new generation.” 

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Wooden boards, seen in the brick wall on the right, cover the church’s stained glass windows to protect them while construction is underway.  

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Since January, when the renovation of the church began, Mass has been held in the parish’s activity center.  

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