On Holy Grounds: Churches host services in unconventional spaces


On Holy Grounds: Churches host services in unconventional spaces
Bellevue Leader (July 21, 2004)
By Wendy Townley

This is the church, but where is the steeple? Open the doors, and you’ll see all the people.
But the people in prayer aren’t seated in a setting traditionally associated with worship.

Take St. Matthew Catholic Church, for example. Since the church joined the Omaha Archdiocese in 1996, it has been raising money to build a traditional Catholic church on the 20 acres of property it owns near the school on 36th Street north of Capehart Road.Eight years later, the church is still waiting for funds, said the Rev. Dennis Stolinski, pastor at St. Matthew.Until the approximate $10 million is collected through donations, all-school and weekend Masses are held inside the school’s gym, also known as the worship center/gym.

Stolinski predicts the church’s membership will also need to increase from its current 680 families to 1,000 families.

The church is expected to seat 1,000 people. Fund-raising could take another eight years, Stolinski said.

A group of church volunteers have the transformation down to a science. Every Friday night, the gym is cleaned and polished. Instead of pews, volunteers set up lines of folding chairs. There are no kneelers, so parishioners stand when parts of the Catholic Mass feature kneeled prayer.

During the summer, the church’s features remain in the gym. When school begins next month, however, the process must begin and end each week as students use the gym Monday through Friday for physical education class.

A platform is placed at the front of the gym, where chairs and an altar are placed for Mass. Masses also feature musicians, who gather with their instruments near the platform.

A crucifix is behind the altar. Statues of Mary and Joseph are also part of the Mass, as are religious banners inside the gym.

In the early 1960s, some Catholic families stationed at Offutt Air Force Base attended Mass at Fort Crook Elementary School.

In 1962, Cardinal Spellman School opened as an independent Catholic school without the support of a parish, and for the next 30-plus years, Cardinal Spellman families worshipped at other Catholic parishes in Bellevue and Omaha.

St. Matthew parish was founded in 1996, and two years later construction of the worship center/gym was complete. At that point, students of the now St. Matthew Grade School and parish members could attend church services on site.

Today, daily Masses are held inside the school’s chapel, adjacent from the gym, which also features a sacristy and confessional room.

Twin Valley Church, an evangelical congregation that also began as a small pocket of Bellevue families, can share St. Matthew’s nomadic spirit.

Services started at Two Springs Elementary School in early 1999. That November, the small group of families moved to Bellevue University for weekend services. Twin Valley has been there ever since.

Twin Valley is in a similar situation as St. Matthew. Land is owned, but money needs to be raised to build the church, which Barnhart said will cost around $1.5 million.

When moving from Two Springs, Senior Pastor Marty Barnhart said a high school gym would be too much space.

“We needed space for 200, 300 people,” Barnhart said. “The university suited that very well.”

Barnhart added: “It was easier to come to church in an auditorium than sit on a free-throw line.”

For $1,100 a month, Twin Valley has weekend use of the auditorium inside BU’s Hitchcock Humanities Center. They have storage space for the items used at services. Twin Valley also uses BU’s classrooms for church meetings and religious education.

“It’s a turnkey operation,” Barnhart said. “We turn a key and have church.”

The church’s office is based out of the Bellevue home of Sherri Sahs, a Twin Valley member and the church’s secretary.

The set-up/tear down process has become an art form for the Twin Valley volunteers who transform the 250-seat auditorium week after week into a house of worship. Setting up musical instruments, microphone and speakers and a platform are part of the process.

The auditorium, however, doesn’t feature aesthetics of traditional churches: stained-glass windows or religious banners. Because the auditorium is so new, BU doesn’t allow much wall décor during church services, Barnhart said.

Housing a church inside a college auditorium does pose its own challenges, such as advertising.

“It doesn’t afford you to have 24/7 advertising,” Barnhart said. “It’s harder to find you in a neutral location.”

Barnhart said Twin Valley’s new families are often looking for a stable congregation, and are sometimes reluctant to attend a church with no physical church.

“They’re looking for stability,” Barnhart said. “They sometimes come in with a jaundiced eye.”

Current membership at Twin Valley is 150 people. When its church is built on the front 13 acres in the Normandy Hills subdivision south of Bellevue near U.S. Highway 75 and Platteview Road, Twin Valley is hoping for upwards of 750 people.

Even though a church hasn’t been built yet, Twin Valley pays $40,000 per year for property taxes, mortgage payments and rental space at BU.

Now, Barnhart said, Twin Valley could build its church within the next three years. Church elders are deciding whether to pay down the land before building the church, or proceed with the church’s construction.


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