Legend has it that brawny St. Christopher, patron saint of travelers, once carried a child across a raging river. The child grew so heavy that Christopher, whose name means “Christ bearer,” told the lad he felt he had the whole world on his shoulders. The child answered, “Christopher, you carry not only the world, but Him who created the world.”
The tiny congregation of St. Christopher Church in Kanab, Utah, shows an uncanny resemblance to its patron. Reaching out to travelers? Bearing Christ to others? Embracing heavy lifting — including the financial kind — with good cheer? Check. Check. Check.
For almost 60 years this church of 100 families has welcomed not only locals but also visitors to the spectacular, remote country around Kanab, a largely Mormon town of 4,000 in southern Utah surrounded by three stunning national parks: Grand Canyon, Zion, and Bryce Canyon.
Catholic Extension not only helped fund the building of St. Christopher Church in 1957 but also its Vatican II renovation in 1987, the construction of its rectory in 1985, and its parish center in 1995. Catholic Extension also currently helps fund the church’s deacon salary.
The church itself, however, needed attention. Changes over the decades had created unsafe conditions — particularly a pair of narrow steps leading into the sanctuary and a perilously high platform for the presider’s chair behind the altar. These hazards were especially dangerous for visiting priests, said parishioner Noel Poe, who helped oversee the construction for St. Christopher.
Dark brown paneling combined with poor lighting made it difficult for parishioners to read at evening liturgies. “The church felt dark even when the lights were on,” said Father Robert Bussen, pastor of Christ the King Parish in Cedar City, of which St. Christopher is a mission church.
When an elderly priest lost his footing on the sanctuary steps late in 2011, parishioners realized they had to do something. Father Mike Winterer, their pastor at the time, advised them to aim for an overall renovation.
For a small congregation with no resident pastor, a complete remodeling of an aging church is an almost overwhelming challenge, but parishioners were undaunted. “The laypeople had to do a lot,” said Poe. “And we had to make a lot of the decisions, too.”
The church hired a liturgical consultant who proposed to build a gathering space linking the church with the parish center. He helped parishioners realize that the church’s mismatched artwork distracted from a focus on Christ.
“We had a very busy church, with lots of things that had been hung up over the years,” said Poe. For example, pictures had been hung between the Stations of the Cross, and a “dark, ominous” Calvary mural behind the altar featured a rattlesnake crawling toward the cross. “It got people thinking, ‘Oh, that doesn’t look right.’ … That really helped our community to realize that changes were necessary.”
Catholic Extension supported the renovation early on with a $50,000 grant — a piece of good news announced one Sunday from the pulpit to thunderous applause. Extension’s grant matched $1 for every $2 raised, up to $50,000 for $100,000 raised from the parishioners, a goal they exceeded.
Visitors to the church contributed, too. “Our parish is so well loved by people who visit us that they’re glad to help us out,” said Barbara Mossinghoff, parish council president. As for the financial tightrope St. Christopher is still walking to pay off the debt, Mossinghoff said, “No matter how much you worry about it, it always works out.”
Together with parish savings and a diocesan grant, the renovation got underway, led by a local architect and subcontractors from the area. It involved nearly four years of painstaking planning, communication, fundraising and keeping the community together.
In addition to the new gathering space, a small new reconciliation chapel and updated lighting and sound systems, two new windows on either side of the altar now bathe the church in light.
Light beige colors replaced the dark interior paneling. The sanctuary has a new ramp, its two narrow steps gone. The parish raised an additional $25,000 for new pews because the old pressboard pews could not be cut down to make the side aisles wheelchair-accessible. On the exterior, a dark brick facade gave way to light-colored stucco for a more welcoming appearance.
The parish celebrated its first Mass in the renovated church in December 2015. “It seems more open now, and maybe more inclusive,” said longtime parishioner Mel Kirkland. “I’m so glad we changed it.”
Many parishioners are retirees, seeking good weather and beautiful country. “You couldn’t find prettier country in the world,” said Kirkland, who loves the area’s red rocks and the “canyons all around.”
St. Christopher outdoes itself in hospitality to travelers, who in summer often make up more than half the congregation at Mass. Each weekend from Memorial Day to Labor Day, parishioners like Kirkland drive 90 minutes each way to lead a Sunday celebration in the absence of a priest at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. And after Sunday Mass, the parish invites all visitors to its parish center for its signature breakfast.
The renovated church now reflects the hospitality and joy that Father Bussen sees in the community of St. Christopher, along with the tremendous pride parishioners take in their church. “Nobody leaves after Communion,” he said. “My God, this is the high point of their week. They just love being Catholic.”