Dedication of church his biggest show yet "I left a good job to come back here and build a church," the Rev. Robert McLaughlin said of the new sanctuary in Kimberton he designed.

Posted: January 13, 2005

The Rev. Robert McLaughlin peered up at the bright bulbs yesterday while he called to an electrician atop a 40-foot ladder: More floodlights here, a sharper spotlight there.

The 59-year-old pastor of St. Basil the Great Catholic Church in Kimberton is no stranger to the stage. He oversaw years of musical productions as drama teacher at Bishop Kendrick High School; once starred in a truck-dealership commercial; and was a TV co-anchor during a U.S. visit by the Pope in 1979.

McLaughlin is now getting ready for what he considers the biggest show of his life: the dedication Saturday of the new, $6.5-million St. Basil's at Kimberton and Seven Stars Roads in East Pikeland Township, near Phoenixville.

The priest, who has been pastor of the church since 1998, designed the 28,000-square-foot, 1,000-seat house of worship, down to the shade of wood stain and the oak altar hewn from a tree on the church property.

The new church, which McLaughlin based on an ancient, octagonal floor-plan, is designed around 12 120-year-old stained-glass windows salvaged from St. Anthony of Padua church in the Grays Ferry section of Philadelphia, which closed in July 1999. Two other 11-foot arched St. Anthony windows adorn the side chapel.

"Our people want an old church. We don't want a modern church, but we'll use modern technology," McLaughlin said in a bow to the digital organ, theatrical lighting, Bose speaker system, and high-tech electronic bells installed Tuesday and already chiming the hour to nearby housing developments.

As a labor of love, McLaughlin considers the project the culmination of his life's work.

"Apparently, it's why I was born," the voluble, hazel-eyed McLaughlin said on a tour of the church.

Cardinal Justin Rigali is expected to preside Saturday at the 10 a.m. dedication Mass.

Dwindling congregations have led the Archdiocese of Philadelphia to close a number of older city churches since the 1990s. But suburban population growth and a need for upgrades at churches such as the original 1960s-era St. Basil's have resulted in a Catholic church building boom across the region's outer ring.

St. Basil's is one of at least a half dozen Roman Catholic parishes in Chester, Bucks and Montgomery Counties with newly completed or late-stage building programs, said Msgr. Thomas Mullin, pastor of St. Elizabeth's in Upper Uwchlan Township.

"The whole neighborhood is growing," Mullin said. He said St. Elizabeth's has raised $9.5 million in pledges for a 1,350-seat church now under construction along Pa. Route 100. The church celebrates Mass in the rented Lionville Middle School gymnasium. It has 2,000 families in the parish, a number that has doubled in the last five years, Mullin said.

St. Gabriel of the Sorrowful Mother, in Avondale, opened the doors of its new sanctuary in June 2002 after 12 years in a gymnasium. The church was founded in 1988, said the Rev. Richard J. Maisano, St. Gabriel's pastor.

At St. Basil's yesterday, in addition to getting the lighting just right under the 250-foot-wide ceiling, painters were daubing last-minute touches; mechanics were working on an elevator; and organist Mary Campbell of Kimberton was getting the feel of the elaborate, thundering new Rodgers organ.

"It's a little bit like the cockpit of a helicopter," Campbell said as she looked over the instrument's many rows of keys, stops and pedals.

McLaughlin, meanwhile, was fretting over the absence of two sculptures, including a massive, 7-foot-by-18-foot frieze depicting the Trinity and an audience of what he described as "big-hitter" saints.

A bare wall of concrete block marked the prominent spot behind the altar where a fiberglass sculpture by Kimberton artist Carolyn Walton is supposed to go. Father McLaughlin said the piece was being cast this week in New York and won't be installed until tomorrow . "We won't get any sleep, but it'll be ready," McLaughlin assured.

McLaughlin said the original St. Basil's church and school were hastily built in the 1960s, and services have been held ever since in a combination gymnasium, cafeteria, auditorium and sanctuary.

"In these '60s parishes, these kids have never seen a beautiful church," he said.

Parishioners pledged $4.3 million for the building, with the balance financed. "Maybe when they see some of this, they'll pledge more," McLaughlin said of his flock. The 30-square-mile parish, centered in East Pikeland Township outside Phoenixville, has 1,200 families.

McLaughlin, born in Abington, has spent most of his life and career in the Philadelphia area teaching, pastoring in churches and campus ministries, and writing. His eclectic background also includes extensive studies in media production and theater, and he has frequently appeared as a religion consultant, commentator and host on local television and radio stations.

Before coming to St. Basil, he was on the executive staff of Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua as director of campus ministries. But he sees the construction of the church as his finest hour.

"I left a good job to come back here and build a church," he said. "Everything in my life seemed to point toward this once-in-a-lifetime thing."

Contact Reid Kanaley at 610-701-7637 or

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