Saturday, June 4, 2011

Restoring the Baptismal Font

Tomorow, Immaculate Conception Church will inaugurate its restored baptismal font and baptistery. The baptistery, the site of the baptismal font, has always been considered one of the most important parts of a parish church, “the place where, from the womb of the Church, so to speak, Christians are reborn through water and the Holy Spirit” (Book of Blessings, 1084). The oldest known western fonts, found in the Roman catacombs, were apparently cisterns hewn in the floor of baptismal chapels. With the major church-building activity of the fourth and subsequent centuries, however, the baptismal font was typically enshrined in the magnificent baptisteries of that period - often separate structures from the church building itself, as can still be seen in the case of the Baptistery of the Lateran Basilica (the Pope’s Cathedral as Bishop of Rome) and other famous Italian churches. Presumably, the growing prevalence of infant baptism and the greater frequency of administering the sacrament led to a change in the structure of the font to facilitate holding a child over it, resulting eventually in the smaller baptismal fonts with which we have traditionally been familiar. This would have been located within the church building but typically in its own distinctive place and separated from the body of the church by a gate or railing. In churches where the main altar was located at the eastern end of the church, the baptistery would preferentially be located at the church’s northwestern corner.

When the present Immaculate Conception Church was built in 1886, the baptistery was accordingly located in the narthex or vestibule near the Church's main entrance, at what was symbolically (although not geographically) the liturgical northwestern corner of the building. Sometime in the 1930s, apparently because of the cold temperatures in the narthex, the font itself was moved further inside the church, and the original baptistery was converted to other uses. In recent decades, it has been completely closed off by a wooden wall and door and has served as a storage room. Meanwhile, at some point the original font found its way to our parish cemetery, from which it has only recently been salvaged.

In anticipation of our church’s 125th anniversary this fall, this seemed like a good time to reopen the site of the original baptistery, exposing the original windows (with their baptismal theme)and, at the very least, brightening up the vestibule area. After considering various options, it seemed best to try to restore the place to its original character and purpose. The original font was found, cleaned, and restored to its original location (of which we can be safely certain because of the drain located in the floor). Among the other objects we found when clearing out the storeroom were the metal gates from the old altar rail. These are presently being adapted to serve as the entrance to the restored baptistery. Two unused pews have been added for use during baptisms. A crucifix has been hung on the wall, and a statue of St. Paul, Apostle to the Nations and Patron of the Paulist Fathers, has also been incorporated into the baptistery area. With the end of the Easter season after Pentecost, the Easter Candle will also, according to contemporary liturgical custom, stand near the font.

This entire project was possible because of the generous, volunteer labor of parishioners. Immaculate Conception Parish is blessed to have such a beautiful and historic church building. We are even more blessed to be a faith-filled community of people committed to our life together as Church and to the service of one another, all of which is so suitably centered in our 125-year old "Church on Summit Hill."

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