“He opened the crate and pulled out the ninth station and sent me a picture from his phone. It took my breath away.”
It’s not every day that someone builds a church and gives it away, but that is what Ken Keller and his wife Marilyn are doing. If you refer to it as “your” church, he will sharply interrupt with “our church.” But really, it is God’s church and thus, he says, God is tending to the details with many little miracles. They are the sorts of incidents that may not defy science to be technical miracles, but they defy all odds so that we cannot resist calling them miracles. Here is a story about one of them.
A New Chapel for a New School
It begins with the building of a new St. Mary’s Catholic High School in Bismarck, North Dakota, on 48 acres of land donated by Ron and Ruth Knutson. Their donation shows what can come from a public-school kid with a day off shadowing his buddy at the Catholic school. The Knutsons are not Catholic, but their son Cameron enjoyed his day so much that he transferred, and St. Mary’s found a lasting place in his family’s heart.
As plans for the new school were revealed, Ken, a St. Mary’s alumnus, father of six grown children and grandfather to 13, was disappointed that the chapel would only seat around 150. He recalled his high-school days at all-school Masses in the gymnasium on folding chairs and bleachers under basketball nets and scoreboards with a makeshift altar. It had seemed an uninspiring setting for such a holy celebration. Since the student enrollment is 355, all-school Masses would still need to be in the gymnasium at the new school.
Ken is a gifted businessman, but he and Marilyn live in a modest home and are about as regular a couple as you will find—nothing showy, just nice folks. They offered to pay anonymously for a church to be built at St. Mary’s—something conducive for the students to feel they are entering a holy place when they gather for Mass.
Two of the Keller’s daughters had attended St. Mary’s College, Notre Dame, and Ken and Marilyn had fallen in love with the Basilica of the Sacred Heart on the Notre Dame campus. “I always felt the presence of the Holy Spirit as soon as I walked in,” Ken explained. “I wanted to replicate that for the students at St. Mary’s.”
However, since the new school relied on fundraising, secrecy behind the church was causing suspicion and complicating matters, so it became necessary for the Kellers to go public in order for the diocese to accept their gift. It was not what the Kellers wanted but they understood and agreed.
The church will be a replica of the neo-Gothic, cross-shaped Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Notre Dame, surrounded with large stained-glass windows and filled with artwork. One difference with the new church, however, is that Notre Dame’s gold dome with the Blessed Mother statue atop is over an office building. The one at St. Mary’s will be over the church. “The total amount of gold will only amount to around 12 ounces,” Ken said, “but I think Mother Mary deserves to be surrounded by gold.”
Notre Dame’s Stations of the Cross
Ken has always been especially taken with the basilica’s beautiful, life-sized Stations of the Cross painted by Vatican artist Luigi Gregori. They are breathtaking,” he said. “Everything is so lifelike. When you look into the eyes, they draw you in.”
Gregori was born in Bologna in 1819 and commissioned by the Vatican to paint a portrait of Pope Pius IX. In 1874, he was hired by Notre Dame as director of the art department and stayed for 17 years producing many works in the basilica and some of the other buildings. In 1890, Gregori returned to Italy where he won a gold medal for the arts. He died in Florence in 1896.
Ken was determined to copy the beautiful stations exactly. “I got permission from the University of Notre Dame to electronically copy them,” he said.
In the meantime, the architectural engineer had found some other beautiful, hand-painted stations from Europe and went ahead and ordered them. He asked Ken to hold off on making the copies until he saw these. Ken did not imagine they could measure up to Gregori’s stations—the ones he had his heart set on.
“It Took My Breath Away”
Toby Schweitzer, Officer and Event’s Coordinator for Light of Christ Catholic School who is also helping with the church, received the shipment. “He opened the crate and pulled out the ninth station and sent me a picture from his phone,” Ken said. “It took my breath away.” Ken compared it with pictures he had of Gregori’s stations. Many of the poses and faces and clothing of the people were almost identical. Was it possible? Are they the work of Gregori?
Since Ken has seen the sketches that Gregori drew before he painted the stations, they were clearly his original works. It seems that he must have also painted these stations yet, no seems to know their history. Somehow, surely through the hand of God, they have made their way to Bismarck, North Dakota.
This is what he knows. The stations were bought an art auction in Atlanta, Georgia. The paperwork stated that they were purchased three years ago from an antique dealer in Belgium. He had purchased them from the estate of another dealer and were kept in storage for many years. They were originally displayed in a church in Belgium that was destroyed during the Second World War. They date from the early 19th century, 1820 to 1850. Ken later learned that a priest had asked a farmer to put them in storage until things settled but he never returned. The farmer kept them in storage for 60 or more years and after he died it was part of his estate that was sold.
Ken would love to track down the church in Belgium where they originally came from and to verify if they are Gregori’s handiwork. He welcomes any suggestions on how to do that.
In the meantime, the new school is open for this school year and the church is expected to be completed in 2021. “Remember, sometimes it used to take hundreds of years to finish a church,” Ken said. “Making it beautiful and filling it with art is what takes so long.”