The marks of a madman’s rampage 25 years ago still tarnish the marble interior of St. Aloysius Catholic Church.
Armed with a sledgehammer and a rifle, Larry J. Harmon murdered a church caretaker, wounded four other people and desecrated the sanctuary before police shot and killed him.
The tragedy is etched into the annals of the historic church, built at the edge of Spokane’s Gonzaga University shortly after the turn of the century. A plaque marks the spot of the murder. Cracks, visible on close inspection, mar much of the remaining marble.
Today, the parish dedicates a new marble altar, reconstructed from ornate altar gates salvaged from the ruins.
“It combines the old with the new,” said Pastoral Administrator Don Weber. “It’s kind of symbolic of bridging the past with the present.”
Completed in 1911, the Romanesque-style church was filled with baroque statues and ornately carved Carrara marble, imported from Italy. The church is among the most opulent buildings in the Inland Northwest.
After Harmon was shot, witnesses said it looked as if a bomb exploded at the front of the church.
“It was unbelievable devastation,” said parish member Rosemary Bippes. “You couldn’t believe that one man could do so much destruction.”
Harmon, high on LSD, walked in the church’s main entry at 11:30 a.m. on a Thursday morning in 1971. After destroying two statues in the rear of the sanctuary, he shot and killed a caretaker working on a clock.
Harmon then took his sledgehammer to the front of the church, knocking over statues and fracturing marble altars and floors. He shattered the free-standing glass altar and the marble rail that separated the altar from the pews. Many of the damaged items were irreplaceable.
Members of the congregation, seminarians and Gonzaga University students patched the church together as best they could.
They carpeted broken marble steps, swept up the fragmented rail and covered cracked marble surfaces with linen. They repaired what statues they could and removed the others.
Harmon’s rampage came in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, which brought about sweeping reforms in the way Roman Catholics worship.
The 26-foot-high formal altar and the rail had become obsolete. No longer did the priest stand at the high altar, with his back to the congregation during Mass. No longer was a rail necessary to separate the clergy from the people.
So the rail was never replaced. The formal altar was patched together and covered with cloth and carpet to disguise the damage. It hasn’t been used since.
The congregation was faced with the dilemma of spending scarce resources to repair artifacts no longer needed for worship.
It’s a hot debate that continues today, Weber said.
Services resumed within days and a temporary wooden altar, painted to look like marble, was placed at the front of the church where the glass altar had been.
It’s this wooden altar that is being replaced by the marble one.
The altar used in modern Catholic services is the center of the sanctuary. The platform is symbolic of the Last Supper Christ shared with his disciples, which Catholics re-create during communion.
The altar is lower than the formal high altar, so the priest can stand behind it and face the congregation.
“There has always been the idea that someday we would have a permanent marble altar that would match the rest of the marble in the church,” Weber said. “But matching up marble quarried decades ago is not an easy task.”
Last year an anonymous donor gave the congregation $10,000, specifying that it go toward a new altar.
Church reformers often have suggested the St. Aloysius’ interior be completely renovated, including removing the old formal altar, which was patched back together.
Parish members would never let that happen, said Bippes, a second generation member of the church.
During the 1970s and 1980s, many parishes embraced the Vatican II reforms, discarding old rituals and stripping their sanctuaries of the icons traditionally associated with the Roman Catholic Church, such as statues and side altars.
Now the pendulum is swinging back toward the middle, Weber said. Church officials realize the value of art, tradition and history, he said.
“People find Christ in the beauty of this building,” he said. “There’s a sacredness in the church itself, which by its nature connects you with Christ.”
It’s something the people who sit in the pews of St. Aloysius have known all along, he said.
Although Bippes relishes Vatican II reforms, she believes the new worship services can be integrated into an old building.
“The pioneers who built that church were very poor, and to build a church like that says something about their faith,” she said. “We need to recognize that maybe there is something valuable in preserving that effort.”
Madeline Gordon, a member since 1927, said the destruction forced the congregation into the painful analysis of what it treasured, both in worship and in art.
“At first, I really missed the rail, but now, I feel closer to the altar during Mass,” she said. “Opening it up did something to say you are included. With the rail up, the message was, you stay out.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Photos (1 Color)
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: DEDICATION TODAY Retired Alaskan Bishop Robert Whelan, S.J., will preside at an 11 a.m. Mass today to dedicate the new altar at St. Aloysius Catholic Church.