From a can of expanding foam to a ‘Piazza of Angels’

St. Michael manifests his presence in Fort Collins church project through beautiful statue

Last year, Father Rocco Porter, pastor at St. John XXII Church in Fort Collins, introduced the Undeniable Presence capital campaign, a five-year project that will shape the future of countless CSU students and the Catholic community in Fort Collins. Included in the ambitious project will be the construction of a new church that will be located just in front of the west side of the Colorado State University campus.

Over the past few years, the increase in student participation at St. John XXIII Parish has created a lack of space to evangelize students through the various ministries the parish offers. The new church will not only create an undeniable presence of God on the campus, but will also provide more and better resources for the evangelization of students.

The new St. John XXIII church will be constructed in a traditional Romanesque-style and a Catholic student housing building will also be built in the property. The beauty of the new church will be key in the mission of attracting students to the Catholic community.

Outside the church, there will be a large plaza with a water fountain where a statue of Saint Michael the Archangel will be placed. This is the saint to whom Father Porter decided to dedicate the success of this project and who has guided them since day one.

When Father Porter decided to place a statue of Saint Michael the Archangel in the plaza of the new church, he never imagined the wonderful testimony he was going to witness. After a long hunt for the right sculpture and several conversations with people in his community, he found the perfect piece for his church. This was how he learned about Herb Mignery, the artist and creator of the art piece.

“I could’ve picked the statue from anywhere else in the world and probably have to travel somewhere to go find and meet the sculpture, but God led me to the one that was right here in Fort Collins the whole time, just waiting to be seen and to be used for this project,” Father Porter said.

The state of St. Michael the Archangel that will be placed in the plaza of the new St. John XXIII Parish in Ft. Collins. (Photo provided)

In 1997, St. Michael’s Catholic Church in Nebraska hired Mignery to build a sculpture of Saint Michael the Archangel that would be placed in that same church. According to Mignery, after spending days forming and building the draft piece of St. Michael drawing the demons out of heaven, he felt that perhaps the image could be too violent for parishioners at the church, so he thought of redoing the sculpture portraying St. Michael in a harmless standing position with his sword by his side. However, something strange happened that made Mignery continue with his initial idea.

Mignery usually forms the interior of his sculptures with pieces of Styrofoam that stick together using expanding foam from a can. When the foam expands, it becomes a firm material which can be used to carve different figures and then apply clay to its surfaces. This foam is a very common material that Mignery would typically leave around his work area. Sometimes, the can would seep a small amount of foam, not larger than a golf ball.

One morning, while deciding on the design of the sculpture, he found something surprising. The foam can had exploded and the foam had formed a clear image of Saint Michael the Archangel fighting the demons.

“I arrived one morning to find a can which had been placed at the base of the sculpture had seeped an image approximately 12” by 12”… The real surprise came, however, when I suddenly realized it was an eerie image of my sculpture of St. Michael in action,” said Mignery.

After seeing this, he decided to return to his original idea, and resumed his project of the active St. Michael of the Archangel expelling the demons.

The foam formation resembling Mignery’s original design for the St. Michael that he discovered one more is on display in a glass case at St. John XXIII. (Photo provided)

Once the sculpture was finished, it was stored in several places until it made it to St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish in Fort Collins, where Luke Hecker, Capital Campaign Manager, and Father Porter, found the missing piece for their new church. Shortly after finding the sculpture, Father Porter contacted Mignery and after putting the pieces together, they decided that the sculpture had to be placed the plaza of the new church of St. John XXIII. Mignery not only agreed that his piece of art belonged to St. John XXIII, he also gifted the piece of exploded foam to Father Rocco and his parish.

For Hecker, the sculpture of St. Michael represents more than just an ornament for the church. It’s the light in the midst of darkness that is present to defeat the evil.

“When I look at this statue, it’s God telling us that the light overcomes the darkness,” Hecker said.

Both Hecker and Father Porter envision conveying a message of hope to students who enter the church through what will be the “Piazza of Angels,” a shelter where they will be protected by God and where evil has no place.

“[We hope] that when students come through the doors and they see St. Michael, they feel his presence here, that they recognize that this is holy ground that is divinely protected by God and that they’re safe here,” Hecker said. “This is a Catholic community where God can form their souls in his image and likeness and they can engage in genuine, real friendship with others young men and women their age and enjoy this sacramental friendship.”


COMING UP: ‘Ambitious’ capital campaign to shape Church’s future in Fort Collins and beyond

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During his first year of theology in the seminary, Father Rocco Porter was gifted with a special task during Pope John Paul II’s visit to Denver for World Youth Day.

“I held his prayer book all the way through the Mass,” he said. “It was an extraordinary experience just to be that close to him, to be in the same place with him, but then to be standing right in front of him for the majority of the Mass.”

The 1993 Cherry Creek Mass celebrated by the now-saint was unlike anything Father Porter had ever witnessed, especially since he looked up to Pope John Paul II so much.

Father Rocco Porter is the pastor at St. John XXIII Parish in Fort Collins, which, through the Ram Catholic ministry, seeks to nurture the faith of college students at CSU. (Photo by Joshua Paul Photography)

“I knew at that point that whole experience was going to shape my priesthood,” he said.

What the young seminarian didn’t know at the time was the influence the pope’s visit would have on his future assignment as a priest.

An ‘undeniable presence’

Father Porter is the pastor of St. John XXIII in Fort Collins, where many of the Catholics involved in the parish are students at Colorado State University.

Equipped with FOCUS missionaries and a campus ministry called Ram Catholic, St. John has been successful at nurturing the faith of young adults at CSU. But parish staff members haven’t shaken the message Pope John Paul II left for the Catholic Church during his visit to Denver, and it’s prompted them to desire more.

“Twenty-six years later, as the Catholic faithful we look at all the crises inside the Church worldwide, and we have to wonder, what did this pope know?” said Luke Hecker, Capital Campaign Manager at St. John.

“How prophetic that he could see the Church would be in such turmoil as he was planting the seeds of the New Evangelization in Denver, Colorado.”

To participate more deeply in that movement, the team at St. John created the “Undeniable Presence” capital campaign — a five-year project that will shape the future of countless CSU students.

“This is a very, very ambitious capital campaign,” said Hecker.

It’s so ambitious that when Father Porter first presented it to the Archdiocese of Denver, “they pretty much laughed at me and said, ‘This is great. Do you think you’re going to be able to do this?’” said Father Porter.

“I said, ‘No, I don’t think I’m going to be able to do this at all. I think God can.’”

This renderings portrays what the exterior of the brand-new St. John XXIII church building will look like once the project is finished. (Photo provided)

The $31 million project accounts for a new church, Newman center, parish hall and parking structure — a campus situated on the western edge of CSU.

This is largely possible because of Tom Gleason, a Fort Collins Catholic who donated several acres of land to the parish in the 1960s. Initially, the parish planned on selling some of that land in order to use the funds to buy a gas station lot that was out of business.

Although they were able to purchase the lot as part of the project, they were also able to keep the land by entering into a 99-year lease agreement with Blackbird Investments, a Catholic developer that has also agreed to include Catholic student housing on the campus property.

“I thought at first it was a scam,” said Father Porter.

But it wasn’t, and because of the parish’s partnership with Blackbird, the balance left over for St. John is only $8.6 million.

“Only God could take a $31 million project and bring in a benevolent Catholic developer and commit $22.4 million before we ever got a shovel in the ground,” said Hecker. “I think it’s miraculous.

“What we are recognizing is that truly, this project is part of the prophecy of St. John Paul the Great and his pilgrimage to Colorado in 1993 for World Youth Day.”

For Adam Hermanson, architect for the project, the beauty of the new church will serve as a key part of the late pope’s mission.

“Embodying the permanence of the faith, lifting our eyes to heaven, drawing us into the intimacy of the Eucharist, and forming us for mission — this new church will be a tremendous launch pad for the new evangelization,” said Hermanson.

According to Hermanson, it’s the details in the construction that will draw students in to practice and share their faith.

This rendering portrays what the interior of the brand-new St. John XXIII church building will look like. (Photo provided)

“The large stained-glass window extending high above the altar will serve as a beacon to the neighborhood, visible far across the university campus,” he said.

“Parishioners, students, clergy and campus ministry staff will utilize the Newman Center with its coffee shop, meeting rooms and active gathering spaces.”

Ultimately, the design, particularly of the interior of the church, “will be focused on the altar, the tabernacle and the baldachin that marks the center of the sacred space,” said Hermanson.

A worthy mission

The fruits of Ram Catholic are never as evident for Father Porter as when he walks out of the church and onto CSU’s campus.

“The students who are part of campus ministry are happy, joyful and excited,” he said. “Then you walk on campus and you realize there’s so many more students who don’t know Jesus Christ.

“There’s sadness and isolation. Everyone’s walking around with headphones on and nobody’s saying ‘hello’ to anyone. There’s a lack of joy,” said Father Porter. “We need to change the culture of our campuses. They’re missing out on a joy that God wants them to have and they don’t even know it.”

Creating a greater Catholic presence has the potential to change the hearts of young people from all walks of life.

“Those students need to see the church,” said Father Porter, “and they need to see a building that’s going to inspire them to want to go inside and meet the Lord.”

According to Father Porter, there’s around 6,000 to 8,000 Catholics at CSU, and Ram Catholic is able to reach around 1,500 of them. This campaign will help the parish extend its opportunities to grow in faith to many more.

St. John hopes to have all pledges in by June or July of this year, to break ground in early 2020 and complete the whole construction project by the beginning of the school year in 2021.

The capital campaign project will finance a new church building, parish hall and Newman center. This renderings portrays what the piazza of the brand-new St. John XXIII church building will look like. (Photo provided)

The parish’s staff remains in awe of the campaign’s continued success, especially at this time in the Church’s history.

“I thought this last crisis was going to hurt the ministry,” said Father Porter. “[But] it’s bringing students to the ministry. I think people are seeing the tremendous battle.

“I think they took that as this isn’t a time to abandon the Church — this is a time to take over the Church, renew the Church, be in this battle and help God purify the Church.”

This project is a testament to that desire.

“The Catholic Church has reason for hope again,” said Father Porter. “I really think that God is probably using this project, and he’ll continue to use others, to really build up his Church again because the Church is in such disarray right now.

“It’s going through some very dark times. I think it gives something for Catholics to get behind and to rebuild God’s Church to what it needs to be.”