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St. Mary's Visitation Church
By: Jennifer Walker-Journey

Father Daniel Pakenham was known and well-respected throughout the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. So, it wasn't a surprise when he was named priest of the prominent St. Mary's Visitation Church and School in Elm Grove, Wisconsin. It seemed a perfect fit  Father Pakenham was a man of good taste and was in many ways the ideal person to take the 160-year-old church and school through a capital project to enhance the beauty and attractiveness of the campus.

"He had a vision for the church and the school," said Deacon and Parish Director Richard Piontek, a close friend of Father Pakenham. "He knew we were a very social community. In fact, St. Mary's is a multigenerational parish. Some families have been here for four generations. These families mix and socialize and interact very well together."

Father Pakenham's vision was to expand the church's campus in a way that would foster this strong sense of community.

"He had a plan in mind to construct an atrium to be compatible with the rest of the building and have it immediately adjacent and accessible to the church, so that after worship services on Sunday, people could pass through the atrium," Piontek said.

The space would not only be used for socializing before and after church, but it would also provide space for retreats, group reflection, staff parties, visitations and countless other events. It would include a kitchen area, plenty of storage space, and a small, elegant library.

"The church, which is very beautiful, really only had a small narthex, more like a vestibule," said Mark C. Herr, partner with Plunkett Raysich Architects, the firm hired to design the atrium. The addition would be both practical and attractive.

Architects designed the space in the same style as the church with a large roof supported by dual land timber beams and an exposed wood deck. The high ceilings reaching toward heaven would be awe-inspiring. Skylights at the peak of the roof would draw in an abundance of natural light. The main entrance and covered portico would face the parking lot, and glass doors would allow entry into a beautiful prayer garden.

The space would also be equipped to handle audio and visual needs, and to project worship services for overflow crowds during special occasions, such as Easter and Christmas. A durable but elegant carpet was chosen for the floor to help with noise reduction, and walls were painted in muted tones to contrast the stunning woodwork.
The exterior was designed to complement the other buildings on campus. The slate roof of the addition was made to match in with the existing roof on the church, and brink was specially selected to blend with the other colors and styles of brick used in other areas of the campus.

Father Pakenham kept a close eye on the construction of the new addition, but his health was failing.

"I can picture him sitting in a chair and seeing the room before the doors were actually opened," Piontek said. "He had this great smile on his face that the project was moving along."

 Just before the project was completed, Father Pakenham passed away. He may not have seen the atrium in use, but his funeral became the first event where the atrium was put to use.

"It was something, how it happened like that," Piontek said. "He was a very prominent priest, and had served as pastor at St. Mary's for 18 years, so we had a lot of priests and bishops in attendance."

Since then, the space has been used for visitations and wedding receptions, group meetings, days of reflection, retreats and meetings. There is rarely a day where the room is not put to use in some form or fashion.

"That building itself seems to take on the spirit of the parish. It is the core where our parishioners interact. And, it has become a vital part of our campus," said Piontek.

Even after construction was completed, Father Pakenham's dream for the facility was not yet complete. Nearly two years ago, when Piontek was named Deacon and Parish Director, he vowed to grant that wish to his good friend and mentor.

"There was a small ante room in the atrium, and Father Pakenham had envisioned using it as a library," Piontek said. "In his honor, we completed the library and dedicated it to Father Piontek. The library has custom shelving, draperies and furniture. Books on the shelves include some of the priest's own. It's just beautiful and it has all the necessary environmental beauty that a man of good taste like Father Pakenham would expect."

Plunkett Raysich Architects is a firm of professional planners, architects, designers, interior designers and technical support staff who work under a philosophy of design excellence and sensitivity to each client's special needs, www.prarch.com.

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