Man on a Mission; Priest with a Vision
BURLESON — Before processing down the center aisle to celebrate Mass at St. Ann Parish in Burleson in 2007, then Bishop Kevin Vann stopped for a moment to take in his surroundings.
He scanned the sanctuary for the tabernacle, but it was nowhere to be seen. The large yet simple crucifix was placed on a side wall of the church, and its beauty was rivaled by dozens of statues scattered throughout the sanctuary. The dated carpet ran from where he stood in the vestibule to behind the altar and was met by a giant tapestry of various fruits that felt out of place in the older church. He turned to the newly-assigned pastor of the church, Father Mel Besselieu, and remarked, “Who built this church? It looks like a ‘70s meeting hall.”
Unbeknownst to Bishop Vann, this comment is what put Fr. Besselieu’s renovation plan into motion. But the opportunity for renovation didn’t present itself until three years later, when parishioners began to push for a new parish hall.
“We started talking about building a new parish hall, and I thought, ‘I cannot in good conscience build a new [parish hall] with our sanctuary looking the way it is.’ So I decided that before we built a [parish hall], we would have to beautify the sanctuary. We are putting our priorities in the right order,” recalled Fr. Besselieu.
His passion for this project is deeply seated in his faith journey. Fr. Besselieu converted to Catholicism as an adult after growing up with a strong Protestant background. His path to conversion was driven by an interest in Catholic teaching and was cemented by God’s great sacrifice of Himself for us on the altar.
He had a powerful experience with the Eucharist during a tour of All Saints Parish in Fort Worth in 1988.
“We were taken on a tour of the church as part of our RCIA class. The teacher took us to all the areas in the church, and the last stop on this tour was the Eucharistic chapel. She opened the tabernacle doors and matter of factly said, ‘Jesus is in there.’ And it just overwhelmed me that Jesus was right there. I left the chapel in tears asking, ‘Why did God do that for us?’ Why would He become bread for us to eat day after day on altars around the world? The only answer I could come up with was because He loves us.”
His faith was ignited after this encounter, and he credits it with being the reason he became a priest.
“If you would have asked me, ‘Why are you becoming Catholic?’ I would have said, ‘Because of the Eucharist.’ That is why I became Catholic, that’s why I will always be Catholic, and that is why I accepted God’s invitation to be a priest.”
His heart for the Eucharist was troubled when he saw the sanctuary at St. Ann. The tabernacle was off in a side room and the altar space looked to be an afterthought. Fr. Besselieu envisioned a space that would glorify God and invite people to grow closer to our Lord in a place that truly exuded holiness through its beauty.
“The space that we had was not uplifting. There is great beauty in holiness, and there is great holiness in beauty. What we had was a ‘70s meeting hall, and it wasn’t inspiring — it was dated. It was time to make this into a true worship space,” said Fr. Besselieu.
“When people come into the church, one of the first things they need to look at is the crucifix, because that’s our symbol. My motivation for doing all of this was so that we could go from a really drab, uninteresting, liturgically incorrect environment, to a vibrant, Christ-centered place.”
To make this vision a reality, he enlisted the help of Ferdinand Stuflesser Company, a world-renowned family of artisans operating out of Italy. Having previously created artwork for the Vatican, Fr. Besselieu knew they would create beautiful pieces for the church. They worked with the priest to draw up plans for low and high altar pieces, multiple statues, and sanctuary furniture.
“They said we needed a down payment of $30,000 to get started. I didn’t have $30,000. So I knelt down in prayer and I said, ‘Lord, I know this is what you want, I just know it, and I need your help.’”
After morning Mass the very next day he received a $40,000 donation from a parishioner.
“A woman came up to me and said, ‘Father I am very excited about this project you have been talking about and I want to help. I’m going to write you a check for $40,000.’ That was $10,000 more than I needed to start the project. And when it was all said and done, we came in $10,000 under budget for the whole thing.”
That was the go-ahead Fr. Besselieu needed to bring his vision to life. The three years of planning finally began to take shape during the summer of 2010. Every last detail had been thought out by the priest. From the placement of tiles on the floor to the scripture verse etched in the Bible held by the statue of St. Ann on the high altar, Fr. Besselieu was a man with a vision.
The work was completed the following summer, and the pieces were shipped to Burleson where they were met with the physical renovations done to the church: a new sanctuary platform, tabernacle moved to the center of the sanctuary, modern tile in place of the orange carpet, new tapestries, and a fresh coat of paint on the sanctuary walls.
Once the year-long renovations to the church were complete, Fr. Mel kept his original promise and construction on the new parish hall began.
The parish hall doubled in size, and is now used for different community events, youth ministry events, and practice space for the church choir. It can also house more than 100 parishioners and visitors who cannot fit in the main church for Mass.
Upon Fr. Besselieu’s arrival to St. Ann in 2007, the main church could comfortably seat all of the parishioners during the weekly Masses. Eleven years later, the overflow section in the new parish hall is bursting at the seams due to the increased Mass attendance.
Music Director Donny Scott thinks the overflow section will need to be enlarged soon due to the rise in Mass attendees each weekend.
“The 126 seats in the overflow fill up at just about every single Mass. We’re going to have to start seating people in the halls because the church is full, overflow is full, and it’s just growing that fast,” said Scott.
“The feedback that we get not only from parishioners but from visitors as well is all positive. They say it reminds them of how churches used to be. Whenever you go to a church, you want to go to one that makes you comfortable and that you can see and feel God, and that is the overall response we are getting about the project,” said Fr. Besselieu.
“I think people really want to go back to the basics. That’s what they crave. Especially because we live in an age now where things are very scary out in the world, people want something that will center them, something that’s familiar. People want to be able to feel and touch the familiar, and I think this sanctuary does that.”
While Fr. Besselieu has drastically changed the facilities of St. Ann during his eleven years in Burleson, he is not planning on stopping anytime soon.
A long list of future renovations and additions will bring needed changes to the parish for years to come. Included on that list are a new youth ministry center, an increased number of classrooms in the formation building, a new holy water font and vestibule area, the conversion of the open air pavilion to a mini parish hall, and a prayer garden at the foot of the statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe.