VERO BEACH | St. Helen Parish hosted an open house Oct. 29, 2022, to showcase the renovation that has transformed the interior of the 67-year-old church into what one parishioner called “spectacular.”
The interior of St. Helen Church began to change in 2018 under the direction of Father Kevin Nelson, then-pastor of the Vero Beach parish. He oversaw the first two phases of the Centennial Renovation project to update, upgrade and beautify the sanctuary — where the altar resides and clergy exercise their offices — the praesidium arch, which divides the sanctuary from the nave, and the side altars.
The most recent phase, under the direction of Father Matt DeGance, the current pastor, impacted the nave, or area where the congregants are seated, and the transepts. Since St. Helen Church is shaped like a cross, the vertical portion contains the sanctuary and the nave, while the horizontal part comprises the east and west transepts.
During two presentations at the open house, Father DeGance detailed the church work that was done this year starting the first week of June.
Two large murals were installed on the transept walls. One depicts the Emperor Constantine’s vision of the Greek Chi Rho symbol in 312 A.D. prior to the battle at the Milvian Bridge. The Chi Rho, which looks like the letter P superimposed on the letter X, represents Jesus Christ.
The second mural is a painting of St. Helen, the mother of Constantine, finding the true cross of Jesus in the Holy Land sometime after 325 A.D.
On the walls above the transepts are portraits of saints that hold special meaning for the parish. On the east transept are, from left to right, St. Cecilia, patron of musicians; St. John Bosco, patron of schoolchildren and founder of the Salesian religious order, shown with Our Lady Help of Christians, for whom he had a great devotion; and St. José Sanchez del Rio, patron of persecuted Christians, who was martyred in Mexico in 1928.
The west transept contains depictions of St. Therese of Lisieux, patron of priests and missionaries; her parents, Sts. Louis and Zelie Martin, patrons of married couples; and St. Francis de Sales, patron of the Catholic press and deaf people.
Other items that were part of the recent renovation include installation of new Stations of the Cross and painting of the church columns to make them look like marble. The new blue ceiling panels were installed with hand-stenciled gold stars, and the rafters stained to match other wood in the church.
Father DeGance told the Florida Catholic that, a few months after he became pastor of St. Helen, some parishioners approached him about tackling the next phase in the centennial project.
“The Father in heaven’s got a big wallet, and so they offered something very generous and I began to think, ‘Oh, maybe we can do this,’ and we began it,” he said. “Some of the plans changed in terms of the transept murals. I wanted to focus more on St. Helen and her son,” showing a connection to families in a parish with a school and many children.
The project was designed and executed by artists from Conrad Schmitt Studios in Berlin, Wisconsin. The murals were painted on canvas with acrylic paint and applied to the walls. In the four months while the work was completed, the parish celebrated Masses in the school gymnasium.
“I think the company did a great job,” Father DeGance said. “I’m so grateful to Father Kevin, who really did a magnificent job before I came. So glad to follow in the footsteps of a giant.”
Bishop Gerald M. Barbarito celebrated Mass at St. Helen on Oct. 30 and blessed the Stations of the Cross and other items.
“The people seem to be pleased with it, thank God,” Father DeGance said. “We still have to lower the chandeliers by three feet to put light on the Stations of the Cross because they’re a bit in the shadows right now.” But 98 percent of the work has been done, he said.
Following Father DeGance’s talks at the open house, volunteer docents were on hand to answer questions and guide visitors through the project. Laurie Manhardt, one of the docents who has been a St. Helen member for 20 years, termed the renovation “transformational” for leading the faithful to greater reverence and readiness for worship.
“I had no idea that they would provide such beauty for us,” she said.
“Personally, we’re thrilled,” Manhardt said. “There have been some very generous benefactors. Many of us have done what we could to just restore and provide some beauty. People have been very generous and happy to see it.”