Four people who helped bring a new-old confessional to St. Mary the Immaculate Conception Parish in Derby stand in front of it. From left: Timothy Conlon, who transported the confessional from a church in Iowa; Father Janusz Kukulka, pastor; Lisa Knott, who donated the funds; and her husband, Patrick Knott, who helped locate the confessional.
(Photo by Jack Sheedy)
DERBY – St. Mary the Immaculate Conception Parish had been without a traditional confessional for almost 40 years. Now it can be forgiven.
Renovation of the church’s interior in the 1970s to comply with Vatican II went a little beyond moving the altar and removing the communion rail. While they were at it, renovators ripped out two ancient wooden confessionals near the vestibule and installed a large air-conditioning unit. Since then, an unmarked room under an exit sign near the vestry has served as the confessional.
"We formed a task force, because we had struggled with financial troubles, and the archdiocese suggested we do something," said Father Janusz Kukulka, pastor. The task force included a rejuvenation committee, which Father Kukulka in the fall of 2012 charged with finding and acquiring a traditional confessional.
He thought that it would be appropriate, as the Year of Faith began in October 2012, to have a visible reminder of the sacrament.
Parishioners Timothy Conlon and Patrick Knott are members of the rejuvenation committee. Mr. Conlon said that after Father Kukulka made his request, "Pat and I were talking and we said, ‘Where can we get one?’ and we looked online and there’s a place down in Georgia that sells confessionals for, like, $30,000."
That was far too much for a parish already under financial strain, he said. So they searched online and found one Catholic confessional on eBay.
A church in a farming community north of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, had been forced to close because people were moving to the cities, Mr. Conlon said. A Lutheran community purchased the building and put the confessional up for sale for $1,500. After some negotiating, the sellers agreed to drop the price to $1,100.
"We had investigated trying to build our own, but how to match the architecture? And the cost for the oak itself would be more than $1,100, I’m sure," Mr. Conlon said.
"The only thing was where to get the money," he added. "So Lisa, Pat’s wife, said she’d donate the money, and we have it in memory of her mother and father, Pasquale and Geraldina Scarpa."
Mrs. Knott said that her parents were lifelong members of St. Mary’s.
The bargain was struck a mere 24 hours after Father Kukulka had made his request.
Mr. Conlon flew out to Iowa, rented a truck, loaded the disassembled confessional on it and drove back to Derby. Mission accomplished.
"We’re waiting for an electrician to come for the lighting," Father Kukulka said on Feb. 15. After the reassembled confessional was positioned and wired for light, a fuse blew. The confessional had not yet been used.
"We’re putting portable lights in there so they can see," Mr. Conlon said at the time.
Those temporary lights were working well when Father Kukulka heard confessions for the first time in his new confessional on Feb. 16.
There are thousands of Catholic churches in the United States alone, so what are the odds that a confessional from one church would match the architecture of another church?
"This church was built in 1882, so it’s 131 years old," Father Kukulka said. "This confessional is 135 years old."
St. Mary Parish – coincidentally the same name as the parish in Iowa where the confessional came from – had its origins as early as 1833; its first church was dedicated in 1852. The present Gothic church, designed by renowned architect Patrick Charles Keely, was dedicated in November 1883.
Like much of the church it now occupies, the confessional is fashioned of oak. It is a lighter color wood than the nearby oak doors of the church, but the color of the wood inside and on the back more closely matches the church’s darker hues. Hand-carved ornamental trim is intact and unblemished. The pressed-brass doorknobs show minimal signs of wear.
"It was refinished in the ’80s and they made it lighter [in color]. They wanted to modernize it at that time," Mr. Knott said.
He added, "This church was in dire straits a year ago, and the team actually was able to get the church in pretty sound standing in a pretty short time. Where you would normally see a deficit taking several years to come out of, we came out of that deficit in a very short time, and everything we’ve been doing as a task force or a team has been relatively rapid, including this."
The church interior has been freshly repainted, he said. "This is a sign of how fast things are moving here. We’re getting more and more people to volunteer."
Father Kukulka said, "And the chancery is amazed that we made this progress in a very short time, so the archbishop twice complimented us."
Aside from rewiring the antique confessional for light, the only other visible change to it has been the addition of a small plaque that says: "In Memory of Pasquale & Geraldina Scarpa, Advent 2012, The Year of Faith, Rev. Janusz Kukulka."