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Story by Vince Luecke
It took centuries to build some of the cathedrals of Europe, so three years’ work on a chapel nestled on the family farm is still quite an accomplishment. That said, I’m still ready to call construction of the Chapel of the Vierzehnheiligen, or Fourteen Holy Helpers, finished. As with most building projects, there’s a list of loose ends to tie up, but for the most part, the family church I first envisioned five years ago is a reality. This story recaps the process and up-and-down progress. It’s also your invitation to a weekend open house. There is information on this page about Saturday and Sunday’s event.
Regular readers of my Monday columns are all-too-familiar with the joys and mishaps of a self-taught chapel architect and builder. But I’m proud of the result and this final feature will serve as a cap on my project. So, instead of retelling the history of the building, why it was built and what it will be used for, I’ll answer some commonly asked questions asked by friends and strangers.
A man and woman pulled up a couple of Saturdays ago and wanted to know what kind of farm building had a steeple towering over the local countryside. They had ventured off the highway and noticed the spire. That led to an hour visit and tour. No wonder I have trouble getting work done.
So here is the story of the now (nearly) completed Chapel of the Vierzehnheiligen.
First, What is It?
The Chapel of the Fourteen Holy Helpers is a small family church. It’s built and furnished in the Roman Catholic tradition I was raised in and still follow, but it’s not tied to any particular Catholic parish. The chapel is 30 feet wide and 55 feet long, including a 15-foot round radius wall. The spire was designed and built by Joe Helming of Jasper. His family firm, Helming Brothers, does much of the steeple work in the area, including St. Pius in Troy and St. Michael in Cannelton.
Construction began in 2009 and the building was under roof in a few weeks. What followed was nearly three years of work, by me and a dedicated team of helpers. We stuccoed walls inside and out, painted, stained, installed hardwood up and down and on the floor. We laughed, cussed at times and shared stories. We mourned the loss of my dad and welcomed new friends. Some friends fell by the wayside.
It’s been a long road that has reached its destination.
What Does that Long Name Mean?
“Vierzehnheiligen” combines two German words, Vierzehn, meaning 14, and Heiligen, for holy ones or saints. In the Catholic tradition, the Vierzehnheiligen are 14 saints whose intercession has been sought over the centuries. According to tradition, which often can’t be proved, most died for their faith. Some are familiar names: Saints Christopher and George, for example. Others like St. Eutstachius or St. Denis are little known in the United States. The 14 saints who compose the Vierzehnheiligen or 14 Holy Helpers, are as follows:
Catherine of Alexandria
Margaret of Antioch
The tradition of the Vierzehnheiligen goes back to the year 1445 when a young shepherd working on land owned by a nearby monastery saw a child crying in a field. He reached down to pick up the boy but it suddenly disappeared. He saw the child a second time, this time with two candles next to him. During a third appearance the child had a red cross on his chest and was in the company of 13 other children.
The child finally spoke to the shepherd: “We are the Fourteen Helpers and wish to erect a chapel here, where we can rest. If you will be our servant, we will be yours!” Shortly thereafter, the shepherd saw two burning candles descending to the spot where the chapel was to be built.
Miracles began taking place and the tradition of the Vierzehnheiligen began to take root. Devotion to the Holy Helpers was and still is most prevalent in Bavaria.
The Farm Chapel of the Vierzehnheiligen
Plans for my chapel were less dramatic than the one in Germany. I was inspired by a chapel I saw while on vacation in Germany. I had already visited the Basilica of the Vierzehnheiligen several times and came up with the idea of a small chapel on my family’s farm dedicated to the Holy Helpers.
A year later, I started real planning, saving money and convincing family members that building a small chapel wasn’t that crazy of an idea.
Two years later, I was ready to put plans in concrete ... literally.
I had written a story on Mike Simon and Josh Harris, who own Simon & Harris Construction. They had built a home using insulated concrete forms that became the subject of a 2008 feature for our home-improvement section that year.
Once erected, sort of like Logos, rebar is placed in the openings and concrete poured between them.
I was drawn to the idea of concrete walls and placed an order for the spring of 2009.
For my chapel the process meant 6 inches of concrete in the walls. I wanted a quiet chapel and the concrete provided just that. I also wanted a rounded wall on the far side of the chapel and the Nudura forms I purchased accommodated that desire, too.
The insulated forms also mean the chapel stays relatively cool in summer and holds heat well in the winter. I placed more than a foot of insulation above the ceiling. The chapel has a small propane heater that heats the space nicely but needs no air conditioning.
The chapel walls were poured in the summer of 2009 and the roof and trusses went on that summer. Work continued for the next year. I did much of the labor, helped regularly by generous family members and friends.
I chose concrete stucco for the chapel’s exterior and interior walls. Permacrete is a brand-name for the material, which comes in a powder form and mixes with a special binding agent. Mixed to the consistency of a thick concrete slurry, Permacrete was spayed on the walls with a texture gun.
The product was difficult to use at fist, but me and the family crew that helped me got the hang of it. The end result wasn’t perfect.
There are few “heavy spots” but I take pride in the work as being mine.
The chapel’s interior features a hardwood ceiling. I found a good deal on hardwood flooring on storage locally. I can take credit for installing the tongue-and-groove wood on the ceiling, a task that took two months and involved holding an air-driven nailer designed for floor use over my head 20 feet in the air. I had bulging biceps.
Staining and sealing the ceiling was relatively easy though messy.
The rounded part of ceiling posed a major problem for me. How to get the rigid red-oak planks to fit around a 180-degree ceiling. The subcontractors who installed the ceiling trusses tried to explain what I’d have to do but I couldn’t figure it out.
Mike Smeltor, a carpenter like few others, gets the credit for solving the trickiest of jobs, installing hardwood ceiling on the rounded area of the chapel. I rented part of my home to Mike for several months while he was working as a construction supervisor at the new Owensboro Medical Health System. He was looking for a short-term place to rent.
I showed him the project one day, not expecting to trade a couple of months’ rent for a tedious job.
“No problem,’ Mike said with his native Boston accent when I showed him the ceiling, which had gone unfished for several months.
Mike worked off and on for three months like an artist working in wood instead of clay or paint. As he reached the peak of the ceiling the pieces got smaller. He tied it all together wonderfully words can’t describe it. I’ve yet to count just how many pieces of wood form the round part of the ceiling.
Mike moved on to work elsewhere but his skill and generosity will always be evident.
The chapel’s floor is a mix of material. A central aisle is made of tile and marble I found online is up front near the altar. The same type of hardwood I used on the ceiling is on the floor and is under the pews.
I should say the pews will go over the hardwood, because as my fingers tickle the keys on my computer, the pews are still in a barn waiting to be installed and cleaned. I hope to have them in place by Saturday.
The chapel is home to a high altar that until a year ago was in the former St. Mary’s Church in Derby.
Tony Thomas and his family owned the church and offered the altar to me. It was a gift of a lifetime and I’ll always be grateful. Moving the massive plaster altar was no easy feat and I have brothers and brother-in-law to thank.
Tony also sold me new windows and front door for my chapel. All are of great quality.
The altar is pieced back together and while it needs some minor repair to fix damaged nicks – from age and the process of being dismantled and reassembled, it is in wonderful shape. The altar makes the chapel seem like a church and more importantly to me, has lasting historical ties to Perry County and generations of faithful Perry Countians.
The wood pews that will go into the chapel came from a congregation in Evansville that was renovating its sanctuary and transitioning from pews to chairs.
I am grateful for the congregation allowing their pews to find a new church home.
What will the Chapel be Used For?
How the chapel will be used remains to be seen. I intended it as a gift to my parents. Mom lives in the house I own next to the structure. My Dad passed away in January after a battle with cancer. He saw the chapel take shape but I’m sad he didn’t see it finished. However, I was happy that he was able to attend a first Mass held in June. Though the ceiling was unfinished and the floor then simple concrete, it was a memorable day.
I hope the chapel will be used as a place of prayer for my family, neighbors and friends. It’s always open. In fact, I don’t know where the key to the door is anymore.
A few people have asked about using the chapel for small weddings. I would be open to that. I don’t want the chapel to become some empty, unused space. I want it to be used.
I have so many people to thank for their help on the chapel I don’t really know where to begin and hate to list names. Keith Huck and Marsha Miller have been big helpers, especially with the tile and marble installation.
Heather Glenn helped with the staining of the ceiling and cleaning windows and other jobs too numerous to mention. She also helped to paint the front door.
Stuart Cassidy, Phil Flamion and Marty Haughee were other helpers, as were Brandon Gill and Jason Shadwick. In these final days, I’ve been busy staining baseboard and wood trim that will serve as a transition from tile and marble to hardwood floor. I hope to get it done. If not, there will be time in the days and weeks ahead. I’ll simply add it to a growing to-do list.
I supposed this is enough ink to spill on any project. I hope readers will come see the chapel this weekend or whenever you are in the area. It’s always open.