by Jim Mulligan
Even if one is not a Catholic Christian, or even religious for that matter, a trip to Europe or Latin America would certainly include a visit to the prominent Catholic church of the city or region. One may argue that a visit to Rome is not complete without a visit to St. Peter’s Basilica, a trip to Paris not complete without seeing Notre Dame, and a trip to Mexico City is only whole after visiting the Metropolitan Cathedral. While some visitors will marvel at the religious importance of these landmarks, the great draw for most is the architecture and workmanship that goes into creating these massive, yet detailed houses of worship. There is something to be said about the ability of man to give it all we’ve got when it comes to honoring and worshiping our God. There’s no need to make a transcontinental journey to see one of the most inspiring works of religious art this author has ever seen. Just visit Reedley.
The almost 110-year-old stone church at the corner of F Street and 11th Street near downtown Reedley is, itself, quite the architectural accomplishment. With seating for 200, it served the first twenty-four Catholic families in Reedley and the growth of the parish for a century. In the early 2000s, it became apparent that a new, larger house of worship was needed. The parish, with the leadership of a newly appointed pastor, began the huge project of financing and planning the structure of a 1000-seat parish home. With that task came an equally important undertaking of furnishing the church with all the required accoutrements; high on the list of needed items was an altar.
Central to the liturgy and physical space of a Catholic church is the altar. The catechism of the Catholic Church specifically states that, “On the altar, which is the center of the church, the sacrifice of the Cross is made present under sacramental signs. The altar is also the table of the Lord, to which the People of God are invited.” Both spiritually and physically, the altar is at the center of every mass that is celebrated.
When it came time to procure an altar for the new St. Anthony church in Reedley, it didn’t take long before the name of a talented parishioner bubbled to the surface of the conversation, someone with the skills and the faith-filled motivation to create the focal point for the new structure. Yet, the pastor at the time, Rev. Monsignor John Esquivel, did not ask any one parishioner to come forward to take on the task. Rather, he asked his congregation to think deeply about their personal talents, to pray about how they could lend a hand to the project. One man felt the calling, knew that God was giving him a nudge, encouraging him to step up and join the effort in a very personal way. He stepped forward and joined the planning committee, ready to give it his all.
Chuck Rodriguez is not a native Reedleyite. He was born in Chandler, Arizona, and came with his family to California. As a migrant worker, his father worked up and down the state. In time, Chuck pursued his love of building and working with tools and graduated with a degree in Industrial Arts from Chico State. After school, he joined the U.S. Navy and worked as a surgical technician. He finally settled in Reedley with his family and began his own business, Chandler Construction, named after his birthplace. Here he’s stayed for more than thirty years, raising his brood of four boys and two daughters with his devoted wife, Liz, by his side.
Altars of great churches of the world are generally not as ornate as the churches in which they are housed. The catechism of the church is fairly specific about the basics of an altar, but does not put limits on what an alter could be either. Chuck wasn’t content to create an altar in the traditional style of great altars of the world. Once he accepted the job of putting together some ideas, he worked diligently, producing and presenting designs to the committee. It was not until his eleventh design presentation that he won the approval of the group.
The final design incorporated both decorative metal work and woodworking skills, all supporting a single piece of solid marble for the top. It was much more than metal and wood in the form of an altar. Each and every weld, every delicately sawn piece of lumber, and every cut with a chisel, came together to form a piece that would draw the attention of the congregation each week to the miracle of the mass. Every aspect he put into place became a symbol of his Christian faith.
Rodriguez began with his skills as a welder to create an inner structure in the form of three grapevines; three trunks symbolizing the Holy Trinity, deep in the center of the base, are only noticeable if one takes a very close look. Rodriguez explained that he wanted to convey that a person must come close, really look hard, in order to see his symbolism, much like one must come close and really desire to have a relationship with God as a Christian. To draw the viewer into that symbolism, the trunks burst forth from the center of the altar into branches of the vines; they billow out creating a cloud of leaves and grape clusters that seems to effortlessly hold up the stone slab above. To create the base and main structure, Rodriguez used walnut boards which he craftily put together to appear to have been carved from a single huge piece of lumber. Everything, down to triquetras carved into the upper portion of the altar ends just below the marble top, were delicately hand carved.
While some of the symbolism used in his design may necessitate a close look, some are readily apparent while also being aesthetically pleasing to the overall design. He intricately bent and wove nails together that encircle the base; they give a definite hint of the torture that Jesus suffered when he was crowned with thorns at His crucifixion. The front of the base is adorned with stalks of golden wheat, a nod to the bread transformed into the body of Christ at each mass. Nails with large heads dot the altar and help the observer recollect the pain of Christ’s sacrifice. Nothing Rodriguez chose to include in the design lacks deep meaning.
All over the world and all throughout human history, humble people with great talent have been inspired to create art and architecture to praise their creator. While a trip to distant places will certainly allow one to see some of this work in person, one need only look in Reedley for one heck of a masterpiece, dedicated to God.