By Pamela Seal
Diocese of Lake Charles
SULPHUR — When Benedictine monks are not praying, you can always find them working. It is part of their traditional motto, Ora et Labora (Pray and Work). At least 20 monks at Our Lady of Clear Creek Abbey in the Diocese of Tulsa, Okla., have been using their time and talents to create the sacred work of art for the sanctuary at St. Francis de Sales Oratory.
“We are very grateful for Divine Providence,” said Rev. Canon Jean-Marie Moreau from the Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest. Moreau serves as Rector of the apostolate in Sulphur. “Everything is providential here — from the Institute establishing a church in Louisiana, to commissioning the monks to build the altar, and most recently the reredos.”
A reredos (pronounced rear-reh-dahs) is a work of art situated behind an altar. They have been used throughout the history of the Church to reinforce Catholic understanding of the relationship between Christ’s presence in the Word of the Liturgy and the Eucharist that occupies the altar.
“A reredos is like elevating a throne for the Real Presence,” Canon Moreau said. "It is a type of art that marked the Council of Trent Reformation (between 1545 and 1563). We chose a type of Baroque sculpture to honor the Tridentine Missal that is placed on the altar and to honor St. Francis de Sales who was born right after the Council,” said Canon Moreau.
The Oratory — the only one in the South for the Institute — is home for the traditional Latin Mass in the Diocese of Lake Charles. The inaugural Mass was celebrated on March 27, 2021, but restoration at the apostolate continues.
Marcus Trahan of Redmarque Construction is the general contractor for the project of the building that once served as the first Catholic church in Sulphur a century ago.
“Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest has always had good relationships with Benedictine monasteries in France and in Italy, especially their motherhouse, the Abbey of Our Lady of Fontgombault in France,” Canon noted.
“I knew of the monastery in the Diocese of Tulsa and asked the Abbot, who directed me to Brother Bernard Marie Dunne, to oversee the project of building the altar,” Canon explained. “It was our prayer as we would prefer to have the work done by religious since it is a sacred piece of artwork.”
The inspiration behind the Baroque style of the reredos came from Spanish missions that Canon Moreau visited during his three-year assignment to apostolates in California. Brother Bernard drew up designs, then went straight to work in the monastery’s wood shop.
“This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity project,” said Brother Bernard, who entered the monastery in 2011 at age 18. “I remember the man who taught me woodworking when I was a teenager. He asked what I planned to do with the skills I had acquired. I told him that someday I was going to carve a church,” he recalled with a boisterous laugh. “After saying it, I thought, sure that would be great, but impossible.”
“It was providential that we were led to Brother Bernard who answered God’s prayer to religious life,” said Canon Moreau. “God in turn answered his prayer to use his woodworking skills to build an altar. God can never be outdone in generosity.”
It is exceptional for Clear Creek Abbey to be involved in a project of this magnitude for something outside the monastery, said Brother Bernard. “What could be better than doing something that is liturgical? This altar and reredos are something that pertains to our faith and something that pertains to the motto of the monks, Ora et Labora. Nothing epitomizes that better than liturgical art,” he said.
“To be able to do this as part of our lives as monks, having that peace of mind that we are trying to be obedient and faithful to our vocation, trying to focus on making something beautiful and focus on the work for God’s glory, adds significance to what we are doing,” Brother Bernard continued.
The reredos stands 24 feet tall, is 18 feet wide and 4 feet deep. It is made of pine, birch plywood, red maple, and hardwood.
Brother Bernard, along with Jacob Villotti (a volunteer from Kansas City, Missouri), arrived at the Oratory on January 15 with the reredos in 13 pieces. Local volunteers were waiting and ready to unload. A chain hoist was used to lift the heaviest piece weighing as much as 700-800 pounds and other pieces weighing up to 400 pounds.
Over the following two weeks, volunteers — many of whom attend the Oratory — helped with the installation. This was the first time the pieces had been assembled as one wall. The volunteers continued to work on the reredos, sanding, painting, and stenciling designs on the five niches where statues will be placed.
“Volunteers are unique in Louisiana compared to oratories in other parts of the country. People here are gifted with their hands,” said Canon Moreau. “This church is a church of the people.”
Steven Coco of Singer and Mike Dismukes of Port Acres, Texas took time off from work to help with the project. They see their contributions as a way of giving back to their Creator.
“This is the House of God,” said Coco. “He made all the raw materials; we are just putting them together and offering them back to Him.” Coco tried his hand at stenciling and enjoyed it, he said, even though he is not a painter.
The trip to Sulphur is an hour one way for Dismukes, but he cannot think of a better use of his two weeks’ vacation. “What’s happening here has eternal value,” he said. “Everyone has gifts and talents. It’s much more efficacious for a person to spend time building something that is for God.”
After his recent retirement, Jeff Gruspier of Lake Charles was ready to give more of his time and talent to the Church. “This project comes from the community, from the people who attend the Extraordinary Mass, for the Glory of God and for an increase in faith.”
Other volunteers include Maurice Caraway, Kellen Leger, Vince Salvador, Danny and James Dismukes, Lance Findley, Jason Thomas, Marcus Trahan, and Gigi Gruspier. Sebastian Moreau, a nephew of Canon Moreau, is also helping while visiting from Paris.
Canon describes the latest addition to the Oratory as, “Magnificent! The reredos is beyond my expectations. Seeing it installed and painted with the stenciling and colors. Wow!”
St. Francis de Sales Oratory is located at 802 South Huntington Street in Sulphur. For a Mass schedule, visit www.Institute-Christ-King.org/sulphur-home