Considered a gem by residents of all faiths, the 110-year-old church is currently undergoing a major restoration to return OLR to its former glory. The work is expected to be completed by Oct. 1, according to Father Philip Panackel, parish priest.
At the heart of the work since it began in April, Panackel said the projected cost is estimated to be more than $618,000. Like all projects, fixing one problem area has led architects to discover others. Changes made in the middle 1970s for safety and other issues has led to part of the problems.
A confessional added 35 years ago began to shift at a different rate than the original structure, separating it from the main church, causing leaks and rot. When the restoration is done, the confessional will be back on the south side of the church.
The first Mass is expected to be celebrated in October. The church will more closely resemble the original version built in 1901, under the guidance of Father B.J. Donada.
The church became widely known for its beauty and art objects. For now, the statues and art have been removed for safe keeping.
“At this point, the inside of the church has been repainted and treated, the carpet is ready for installation, the pews have been refinished – and they are beautiful – and the roof has been replaced, along with new gutters,” Father Philip said. “The air conditioning system is replaced to make it more efficient and the lighting for the church is done.”
New Lexan has been installed to protect the irreplaceable stained glass windows imported from Germany.
If Father Philip has a regret, it’s that the hardwood will not be restored. The floors lie beneath sheathing installed in the 1970s to add carpeting.
“The hardwood looks to be in good shape from underneath but we would have to remove the wood covering them and then refinish the hardwood,” he said. “That will cost an additional $74,000.”
The hardwood was covered with carpeting to silence footsteps as parishioners walked to their pews.
Most of the church however, is original. The baptismal font is part of the original furnishings, though the vestibule that houses it is not. A stained glass window was taken from the belfry and placed behind the font so its beauty could be seen.
The stained glass windows are the work of Emil Frei and irreplaceable after the factory in Munich was destroyed during World War II.
The windows depict the 15 mysteries of the Rosary, Christ Among the Children, and other devotional scenes.
The irreparable pipe organ was donated for parts, opening up a view of more beautiful windows in the choir loft.
The walls and ceilings are covered with the original pressed tin. Statues dating back to the “Rock Church,” and sculpted in metal are of St. Bridget, St. Patrick, Our Lady of Lourdes and the Sacred Heart. The Gothic altars are stamped Germany, 1900.
While the restoration will continue for at least another month, members have been making do by attending Mass at OLR auditorium and the Adoration Chapel.
Father Philip says the parishioners “are anxious to see the results of the restoration work.”
“The renovation committee has been working diligently to get all the problems resolved that have been facing our church building for several years,” Panackel said.
The historic church stands on the site of the last mission in Texas – Nuestra Señora del Refugio – which was founded in 1795 by two Franciscan friars from Zacatecas, Mexico, Father Manuel Silva and Father Francisco Garza.
The town of Refugio sprang up around the mission with the arrival of Irish immigrants. Thirty-five years after it was built, the ruined mission became Our Lady of Refuge parish church.
Four churches have been built since the mission was cast aside, its building blocks removed for cornerstones of the new homes constructed by the new settlers.
At 42 by 104 feet with a 105-foot tower, the 1901 church on the southmost side of town was said to be the largest frame church in all of South Texas.
Father Philip said the public is welcome to be a part of this historic undertaking.
“When all the work is finished, it will be a beautiful church again and should last another 35-plus years without any major expenses or problems,” Father Philip said.