Seeing is believing

The restoration of St. Mary’s Church and why it matters

By Cheryl Allen
Posted 8/31/23

Stepping inside St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Riverside, one can’t help but be awed by its beauty.   Robin-egg blue walls, trimmed in gilt, rise up to meet spectacular ceiling …

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Seeing is believing

The restoration of St. Mary’s Church and why it matters


Stepping inside St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Riverside, one can’t help but be awed by its beauty.  Robin-egg blue walls, trimmed in gilt, rise up to meet spectacular ceiling arches.  Stained glass windows glow with color and light.  Statuary beckons; frescos intrigue.  It may take hours to take it all in.  

When Father Bill Roush arrived in 2018, his first impression was a little different.

“You couldn’t look anywhere in that church and not find something that needed attention,” he says of the historic church, which was built in 1906.

Fr. Bill isn’t your typical parish priest.  “I’m a second vocations priest,” he explains.  “I had a wife.  I’ve got two daughters.”  

He continues, outlining the path that took him from married life, which ended in 1997 with the death of his wife, and a career at Monsanto, working his way up from the floor to OSHA Process Safety Management, to the priesthood.  

It’s not hard to imagine what those OSHA-trained eyes saw when he stood looking out on a nave that’s upkeep hadn’t been a priority for many years.  

“I couldn’t sit in the presider’s chair without looking at something that needed repaired or painted or fixed,” he says.  “It was just so obvious.  The paint was falling off the ceilings and the statues were all chipping and peeling.  The carpet needed replaced.  You didn’t know where to start.”

Fr. Bill had promised himself that he wouldn’t change anything at the church during his first year while he acquainted himself with the people in the parish.  But once that time was up, he brought the issue before the parishioners.

“I can nickel and dime you the whole time that I’m here,” he told them, “Or we can do a capital campaign and get this stuff taken care of.”

There was a lot of stuff:

  • Tuck pointing of the bell tower
  • Stained glass window restoration
  • Carpeting throughout the church and choir loft
  • Repainting and new numbers on the clock tower faces
  • New concrete and parking spaces 
  • Additional accessible parking
  • New garage and driveway to the rectory
  • Landscaping to divert water runoff
  • Repainting and restoring all statues and stations of the cross
  • Installing a safety rail in the choir loft
  • Repainting and plastering the church interior
  • Installing handrails leading to the sanctuary
  • Total pipe organ restoration
  • New exterior doors to the sacristy and stairwell

These needed improvements would require close to $1 million to complete.  

“We started with pamphlets explaining what needed to be done, and created pledge cards and let people pay over a three-year period of time,” Fr. Bill says.  “We made plaques for all of the people that donated more than $5,000.  We sent out letters to all the family members of the parish, and there’s three churches in our community.” 

In less than six months, they had the funds they needed.

“People in this area are very generous when it comes to their faith,” Fr. Bill says.

The work that needed to be done was completed for the most part by Christmas 2019, although restoration of the 1912 pneumatic Wangerin pipe organ continues.  Original estimates to clean the keyboard, replace the bellows-like leathers, and remove the dents and bends from the 800-plus individual pipes fell far short of reality.  The hope is that this year’s Labor Day Celebration, which the church puts on annually, will raise the remainder needed to cover the approximately $170,000 total cost.

More than just beauty

“The trained eye sees more” is a phrase often used when talking about the natural world.  When we learn to identify the individual species of trees or butterflies or can differentiate between different types of rocks, we do, in fact, see more of the world around us.  We see ‘maple’ and ‘elm’ instead of trees; we see ‘monarch’ or ‘painted lady’ instead of butterflies.  The world depicted inside St. Mary’s Church is no different.  

The statues, frescos, and stained-glass windows inside the church are more than just beautiful images intended to delight the eye.  

“There’s a story behind every window and statue in the church,” Fr. Bill says.  “Either it’s a replication of one of the apostles, or it’s a bit of a Bible story in the windows.  In the medieval days, that was all a part of your worship.  You went in, and you got this story from the stained-glass windows or the paintings.  There’s a lot of tradition that’s handed down in the Catholic Church, and everything has a meaning behind it.”

Cataloging those meanings and stories is a project he is currently working on.  In progress is a booklet containing a photo of each statue, window, and artwork inside the church, alongside a description of the person or story the piece depicts.  Once complete, Fr. Bill hopes to have complementary copies of the booklet available at the back of the church.

Knowing what you’re looking at can make all the difference to your life.

Fr. Bill compares the artwork in the church to “The Chosen,” a multi-season TV series about the life and ministry of Jesus presented in a personal and relatable way.  The series “takes liberties” when it comes to its portrayal of Jesus and the apostles, but it is Biblically-based.

“You can relate to these apostles and recognize they were human too,” Fr. Bill says.  “So, looking up at the apostles in the ceiling, you can connect the scripture with maybe what was going on in their life at the time.”

“That’s what people need to recognize, that all of these characters are human and are going through all the same life problems that we’re going through with relationships.  Peter and Paul didn’t get along all the time.  They had conflicts.  I think that pictures and paintings help people recognize that, if they know a little background,” he says.

Fr. Bill says that for him, the church has always been a place of solace, and he hopes that St. Mary’s can be that for others as well.  The public is always welcome; if the doors are locked, stop by the office inside the Education Center next door and someone will let you in.

For more information about St. Mary’s Church, located at 41 St. Mary’s St., Riverside, visit, call 319-648-2331, or email  To engage with the community and support the refurbishment of the organ, attend the church’s Labor Day Celebration on Monday, September 4; see ad below for details.