By Paul Maryniak
It was a most unusual site that awaited congregants of the Parish of St. Benedict in Ahwatukee after Mass on a recent weekend.
Within a chalked diagram on the large lot outside the church on 48th Street, a baby wading pool lay where the baptismal font would be. The coat tree with the wedding gown signified the bridal waiting room that will also host crying infants. A toy piano and four folding chairs stood in an area where the choir would be.
And behind a makeshift altar where plastic facsimile of a stain glass window hung from a fully upraised scissor lift, life-sized cardboard dummies of the pastor, Father Bob Binta, and the pope greeted all who inspected the site.
“We wanted to have a carnival atmosphere,” explained parishioner MacGarret Becker.
That atmosphere accompanied a serious purpose for the display, which members of Boy Scout Troop 77 guarded by camping overnight on the Saturday.
After five years of intense planning, focus groups involving scores of their fellow congregants and many long meetings with architects and other professionals, Becker and a small group of parishioners took a big leap toward achieving their dream of a new church – which draws many of its members as far east as Gilbert, especially along the Santan Loop 202.
They launched a fund drive to raise $3.5 million – half the estimated cost of the new building that they hope to open by Christmas 2019, less than 18 months from a planned groundbreaking this fall.
To show their fellow parishioners what those five years had produced and what that money will yield, Becker, the fundraising campaign manager, and Eamonn Ahearne, the general campaign chairman along with his wife Karen, worked with their planning group to outline the footprint of the 20,000-square-foot church and its components.
The new church will replace the gymnasium-like building that St. Benedict’s 1,300 families have been using for worship for 13 years – 10 years longer than the congregation had planned on using it.
Located only a few thousand feet from the recently completed Mountain Park Church, the new St. Benedict’s building is needed not just to house a growing congregation’s worship time but because its ministries need more room as well, Ahearne said.
“We’re splitting at the seams,” he said. “Having the church will give us the space and the room to allow our ministries to grow.”
The largest of St. Benedict’s vast array of ministries is its chapter of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, which operates a food pantry and helps poor families and individuals in other ways.
The parish’s Knights of Columbus, which raises thousands of dollars annually for various charitable endeavors, needs more room – as do the monthly Red Cross blood drives that attract so many donors two mobile units are assigned to accommodate them.
Meeting rooms inside two temporary barracks-style buildings behind the existing church are used to house homeless families for a week twice a year.
Besides needing more meeting and storage space for these and a host of other groups and activities, however, parishioners want a church that …well, looks more like a church.
“We have couples who are getting married and they say, ‘We love it here. We love the people. We love the masses. But we’d like something that looks a little more like a church for our wedding,” Ahearne said.
Formed in 1985 in Chandler, the congregation has moved several times – most recently in 2004 when it came to Ahwatukee.
“Since our founding, we have been nomads, moving from one place to another for worship,” Binta states in a campaign brochure, recalling how one parishioner told him, “It is time for us to settle in the ‘Promised Land.’”
The number of parish families has more than tripled in size since 1989, said Martin Ruggerio, honorary campaign chair along with wife Linda and Marcia and Jay Iole. And it draws families as far away as Gilbert and Maricopa, many living along the Santan Loop 202.
When the existing church was built, Ruggerio said, it was originally conceived as a building that would be used for worship only three years and then become a gym for adjacent St. John Bosco Catholic School, which was already there when the congregation moved.
In 2013, a group of parishioners decided it was time to start planning for “the Promised Land.”
Three years of “having a lot of focus groups” produced a master plan for the next 25 years of the church campus’ development, Ahearne said, adding, “Then a building group worked for another two years.”
“We were shocked by the number of people who said go forth and do,” Ahearne said. “Now we’ve got to get the money to do it.”
Working with the architectural firm of Orcutt Winslow, the group also assigned a retired executive from their parish, Bob Prezkop, to ride herd on planning for every detail of the new edifice while it also paid off a remaining $3 million mortgage in three years – eight years ahead of schedule.
The campaign committee that has stepped up to get that money also includes special events chairs Marilyn and Bon Johnston as well as Julie and Parker Davis, Chettie and Hal Dodson, Carol and Don Engel, Holly and Dave Forseth, Chona Guang, Barb and John Phelps, Linda and Charlie Schifano, Karen and Chris Somers, Cathy and Mike Templeton and Jennie and Jim Tighe. Carol Lawless and Mary Jane Livens provide administrative support.
While architectural renderings of the new church’s interior and exterior may not be exactly what the congregation ends up with, they nonetheless represent a pretty close idea of what planners and their fellow parishioners hope to end up with.
The weekend’s display was aimed at giving them another glimpse at “the Promised Land” in the hopes of inspiring them to open their wallets.
“We believe in the power of the personal appeal,” Ahearne said, describing St. Benedict as “a welcoming church.”
“When you sit down across from a family and share your passion for St. Benedict and the benefits this new church will provide, the prospective donor comes to a true understanding of how our community will grow. And that’s wonderful news for all of us.”