After years of planning, extensive fund-raising and an abundance of prayers, the dreams of the congregation of Our Lady of Belen Catholic Church are finally becoming a reality.

The first phase of the church’s plan to bring a new look to the historic parish will be complete by the end of this week. Months of renovating and building onto the new religious education building has finally come to an end — but it’s just the beginning of a new era at Our Lady of Belen.

In September 1999, church leaders and parishioners seriously began thinking about improving the parish. Because the parish hall was in need of improvements and the religious education building was too small to fit all the students, planning began.

But before the parish could even think about the project, it needed to get permission from the archdiocese in Santa Fe. Deacon Norbert Sanchez traveled to the City Different to meet with the diocese’s finance council and asked permission to begin an exploratory committee for a new parish hall.

“As a result of the exploratory committee, which lasted about a year, we came up with a master plan, which included the renovation of this building (religious education) and a new parish hall,” Sanchez said.

The exploratory committee included Father David Gallegos, Sanchez, Martin Sisneros, David Sanchez, Miguel Hildago, Andre Hughes, Jim Lynch, Richard and Lavonne Abbott, Karen Bielinski, Tim Lardner and Larry and Virginia Jaramillo.

After the committee’s year-long examination of what it would take to build a new parish hall, the archbishop’s office gave permission to begin with a master plan.

“When we started with the master plan, we were talking about a parish hall first,” said Father David Gallegos. “Instead, we saw that the real need was, first, all the children and their needs. The first phase evolved to have adequate space for the children and youth groups.”

With 1,000 religious education students using the former convent every week, church leaders knew that they needed to construct a building in which the children could be comfortable. That’s one of the main reasons Martin Sisneros became involved in the project.

“If you want to see something crazy, you should come here on a Monday evening for catechism,” Sisneros said. “I used to bring my kids here, and, like all the other parents, I would drop them off and pick them up. Kids were just running around everywhere.

“But what really got me convinced was when I walked in … and saw the kids crammed into a small, tiny room,” he said. “I knew something needed to happen — and fast. I thought we can do this for grownups and we can do this for a lot of reasons, but the kids are what really motivated me to move to another level and get involved.”

Jude Quintana, director of religious education at Our Lady of Belen, said she is very excited about the new 9,000-square-foot building, which includes larger classrooms, a state-of-the-art kitchen and preparation area, two large restrooms and an enclosed courtyard.

“It’s like a new home,” Quintana said. “It’s a dream, and I hope the people of Belen will see the importance the core group has expressed to our children and to our faith and the future of our church.”

The new religious education building is one of a kind. This is the first and only building in the archdiocese intended solely for religious education. The pride and workmanship of the new building became a reality in part due to the generosity of parishioner Tim Lardner.

When construction bids came back a little too high for what the parish expected, Lardner decided he would offer the church his own GB-98 general contractors license to build the structure. After getting permission from Archbishop Michael Sheehan in Santa Fe, the first phase was ready to begin.

“We asked for a resubmittal of bids from local contractors and parishioners, and we put together a package that came in significantly less than the original bids,” Lardner said. “After we got permission from the diocese, we broke ground on May 1.

“Right now, we’re on time, on budget and we’re doing good,” Lardner said. “We’ll be finished on Friday.”

For the past four months, the religious education building has gone through much-needed renovations and expansion. Some of the work involved gutting the interior of the existing building to expand the classrooms, plus installing new water, sewer and gas lines, new forced gas heating and new windows throughout. Construction crews also improved the building by making it handicap-accessible.

The devotion and determination to build a new religious education building for the parish came from an understanding of the parish’s future, said Gallegos.

“I’m not going to be around a whole lot longer, but the church is,” he said. “We have a beautiful and wonderful place of worship, which is the goal of a lot of places. But there’s a future for the church, and we see it in the children.”

As the new building is finally ready to house the church, the parish will soon be able to rejoice in the second phase of its dream. With a groundbreaking ceremony scheduled for the new parish hall in 2003, church leaders hope that the new additions will only add to the parish.

“We need a good parish hall with a good gymnasium,” Gallegos said. “We have a Catholic school here, and, although the numbers may be small, we need a place where the students can go, where we can have large conventions for CCD and dioceses meetings.

“It will also be used for just the general coming together of the parish,” Gallegos said. “We have a beautiful church and we kind of misuse it by having Christmas plays and things. The church is sacred, and it’s not a place where things should happen.”

With a congregation of 4,000 families and 12,000 parishioners, the existing parish hall has outgrown its capabilities. The new parish hall, which will be directly south of the religious education building, is expected to be 20,000 square feet and hold about 700 people.

“We need a place to truly celebrate and for parishioners to invite all their relatives and friends,” Sanchez said. “Two of the larger multipurpose rooms can be divided for smaller gatherings.

“We’re also planning on opening up the road from Reinken to Delgado, which allows us to have separate functions that won’t interfere with the church or school,” he said. “And we’ll still have the old parish hall to use, too.”

The third phase of the project is the tying-in of all the parish buildings with a large outdoor courtyard. Gallegos said the courtyard will feature a traditional portal (covered walkway and porch) from St. Mary’s to the religious education building to the new parish hall and finally to the church. The new courtyard will also feature landscaping and a center fountain.

A reception and dedication for the new religious education building is scheduled for Saturday, Oct. 4, after the 6 p.m. Mass at Our Lady of Belen.

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Clara Garcia is the editor and publisher of the Valencia County News-Bulletin.
She is a native of the city of Belen, beginning her journalism career at the News-Bulletin in 1998 as the crime and courts reporter. During her time at the paper, Clara has won numerous awards for her writing, photography and typography and design both from the National Newspaper Association and the New Mexico Press Association.