Ellen Rahner wanted to renovate an adoration chapel at St. Anthony’s Parish in Cortland — to provide a quiet space for people to pray.
“It wasn’t being used,” the Homer woman said of the room in the Pomeroy Street church.
Rahner, an artist and designer, and a parishioner in the church, used to have quiet time regularly in an adoration chapel in France, when she worked for L’Arche, a community that works with people with disabilities. Prayer was central to the community.
Rahner looked at the space and thought she could transform it.
“The design side of me said it’s not laid out right. It’s not warm enough. To see the colors, it’s not light enough. If I make it right, people will use it,” she said. “The religious side of me: I want to do adoration again. That was in my head for two years.”
“My husband, Doug Rahner, got sick. He got lung cancer,” Ellen Rahner said. “If he gets better, if he recovers from lung cancer, I am going to do this chapel.”
Her husband, chief medical officer at Family Health Network, did get better. She presented her idea to the church to refurbish the room. “I would do it for free,” she said. Her husband paid for the materials. The couple wanted it to be a gift to the church.
The mother of four children, three grown and a 14-year-old at home, researched other adoration chapels, which in the Catholic tradition, have a special box that holds a wafer of bread, a symbol of Christ’s body, that has been blessed by a priest. The bread or wine, used in Holy Communion, is called the Eucharist. “That really is sacred for Catholics,” Rahner said.
Catholics believe the Eucharist is the body and blood of Christ.
“Adoration is what we call it when we pray in front of the Eucharist,” Rahner said.
Rahner is a trained sculptor with a college degree in art and worked for the late William Schickel, a church designer in Ohio, who in his younger days renovated the Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky, getting the Architect’s Gold Medal Award for the work.
“I have a passion for 3D, I like to finish furniture. I’ve always been a builder,” said Rahner, 52.
Rahner emptied the room and enlisted her sister, Liz Garnier, and niece, Lucy Rahner, both artists in New York City, to help her make two murals on the walls. One, a dove against the sun, represents the Holy Spirit. Another depicts God the father in cloud and fire, guiding Israelites out of Egypt.
A sculptor, Rahner made a third stone wall that represents Christ. A small temple is encased in stone that holds the sacred bread or Christ’s body. It is behind a refurbished 100-year-old door donated from the Diocese of Syracuse Chancery archives.
Paul Yaman, a retired contractor, helped Rahner anchor the stone “pony” wall into the floor.
She used rocks found in the area to accent the wall and added alabaster, which ancient churches used for windows, to accent the lighting.
“It was a lot of fun,” she said.
The church paid for an electrician who installed a heater and new electricity.
Rahner polished wood around two stained-glass windows of Saint Lucia and Saint Rocco, part of original St. Anthony’s parish. The room has large pillows, prayer and meditation benches and chairs, including a 100-year-old Lincoln rocker Rahner refurbished.
She got a table from the side of the road and a special box from Thrifty Shopper that she stripped and refurbished.
Rahner worked for L’Arche in France in the 1990s.
“There’s one in Syracuse. It’s a really great organization to work for. Every L’Arche community has it’s own personality,” she said.
But the people involved have to find a way to pray together, she said. In India, L’Arche communities bring together Hindu, Muslim and Christians for instance.
In France, there was an adoration chapel at L’Arche.
“I went there every day,”she said.“Prayer is really important. I got to know about adoration through L’Arche in France.”
People don’t have to be Catholic to do it. “It’s very powerful.”
“It’s contemplative prayer, in silence. It’s allowing God to speak to you.”
“It’s like a sun bathing,” she said, as was explained to her by a Canadian Jesuit, Gilles Beauchemin, a L’Arche priest: “You expose yourself to the sun … All you do in contemplative prayer is allow yourself to be exposed to God.”
The Rev. Peter Worn of St. Joseph’s Church in Camillus said his parish has an adoration chapel, made 20 years ago.
People sign up for its use at half-hour or hour-long periods. It has a tabernacle and eight chairs.
“Anyone can come in. It’s not like we take attendance or vet them,” he said. “It’s a respite from the crazy pace of the world. You sit in silence. People read. People sit and pray.”
“In that quiet and stillness, your mind can be racing from one thing to another. It gradually calms down. It’s in the presence of God,” he said.
“I think it’s so lacking in everyone’s lives,”Worn said.“We are looking at our phones. We are in a hurry.”
“Jesus went up to the mountains to pray, to get away from everyone. He did it all the time,” Worn said.
Worn saw nuns in Haiti caring for children in a huge orphanage. There were 50 babies in one room. The nuns worked furiously, for long hours.
“They always spent one hour a day in front of the blessed sacrament,” Worn said. That allowed them to do what they do.
Rahner started the project in July and completed it in October. It was blessed on Oct. 13, said the Rev. Joseph Zareski, pastor at St. Anthony’s and St. Mary’s parishes.
“It’s very beautiful the way she restored it,” he said.
Rahner spent two years preparing and listening.
She thought about what people needed by watching and observing. She sought opinions from the priests and several parishioners, asking what they wanted to keep in the room. It holds a crucifix, the first from St. Anthony’s rebuilt in 1950 and a banner of Mary, Jesus and John the Baptist, an heirloom from Italy donated to the church. Both were in the original adoration chapel.
“I think it’s beautiful,” said the Rev. Nathan Brooks, an associate priest at St. Anthony’s and St. Mary’s parishes. “I think it’s a nice peaceful place to pray in, to spend time with the Lord.”
Anyone who wants to use the chapel can call the parish center at 607-756-9967, Monday through Thursday.
“This is so great,” Rahner said. “I know people are going in there.”