A Life Spent Working Against the Grain

A Life Spent Working Against the Grain

Golden jubilarian Fr. Helmick combines roles as mediator and woodworker

By Mark Sullivan
Staff Writer

Whether mediating conflict in world trouble-zones or crafting a harpsichord of fine wood, Rev. Raymond Helmick, SJ, 50 years a Jesuit, considers himself a problem-solver.

Rev. Raymond Helmick, SJ, stands in front of the tabernacle he built for St. Theresa's Church in West Roxbury.
(Photo By Lee Pelligrini)
"A Maronite priest in Lebanon once told me, 'You Americans think when you find a problem, there's a solution,'" said Fr. Helmick, a part-time member of the Theology faculty at Boston College.

"I make a two-way division between all mankind: People who try to find out how to get something done, and those who show you all the proof it can't be done."

Fr. Helmick, who will be among the BC Jesuits marking Jubilees in the Society of Jesus at a campus Mass and reception Oct. 12, is noted for getting things done in the realm of back-channel diplomacy.

He has served as an unofficial emissary between Catholic and Protestant paramilitary groups in Ulster, and played a similar go-between role as a founder of the US Interreligious Committee for Peace in the Middle East.

Fr. Helmick also was invited to the White House for the 1993 signing of the peace accord between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization, and traveled with Rev. Jesse Jackson and other religious leaders during the 1999 Kosovo crisis to negotiate the release of three US soldiers captured by the Serbs.

Less widely known is Fr. Helmick's skill at piecing things together as a woodworker.

The Arlington-born Jesuit keeps a woodshop at St. Theresa's Church in West Roxbury, where he is in residence and his brother, Rev. Msgr. William Helmick, is pastor.

Fr. Helmick fashioned the ornate Gothic tower of gold-leafed mahogany that rises 16 feet above the tabernacle at St. Theresa's. An accomplished musician on piano, organ and other keyed instruments, he has built two harpsichords and several clavichords.

He currently is at work on a minbar, or pulpit, for the New England Islamic Center in Sharon, a project that grew out of his ongoing effort to foster conversation between Christians, Muslims and Jews.

Furniture-making and dialogue-building are thus joined in the vocation of Fr. Helmick, who says he would have been either a musician or an architect had he not entered the Society of Jesus a half-century ago.

"I suppose I do put things together," he said. "Woodworking is all problem-solving. Every intricate detail is a problem to be solved."

In carpentry as in diplomacy, Fr. Helmick has found necessity the mother of invention.

"I got the bug for woodworking when making the harpsichord," he recalled of his first major project, begun in 1969 when he was at Union Theological Seminary in New York. "I was playing Bach on a piano. I knew that I needed a harpsichord, and the only way I could get one was to build one."

He took the same approach to the tabernacle tower at St. Theresa's.

When a renovation of the parish church was planned in the late 1980s, it was prescribed the tabernacle should be placed elsewhere than its familiar place in the center of the sanctuary. The tabernacle is the repository for the consecrated Host that is believed by Catholics to be the Body of Christ and traditionally has been a focus of adoration. Post-Vatican II liturgical reforms called for the tabernacle to be moved lest it distract from celebration of the Mass at the altar.

"A lot of people found that difficult to understand," Fr. Helmick recalls in a 1998 guidebook he penned for church visitors. "It seemed to downgrade the reverence they felt for the Blessed Sacrament.

"As the pastor's brother, I rather lightly made the suggestion: 'Go for the Gothic solution.' By that I meant building a tower structure for the tabernacle, such as had often been done in late Gothic times in the 15th century. My thinking was that, even if given a place in the church away from the center, such a tabernacle could never be seen as slighting the sacrament.

"The idea, at the time, must have sounded interesting but a bit zany. After a couple of years had gone by, without any better solutions coming to light, the tower began to seem more practical.

"It isn't the sort of thing you can order from the store, so in the summer of 1990 I set out to build it."

The tabernacle tower was inspired by similar Gothic adornments in the Church of St. Jacques and the Collegiate Church of St. Pierre in Louvain, Belgium. Marble and wrought iron from the church's altar rail - removed during renovation - were incorporated into the tower's base and grillwork.

And the panels depicting Christ's teachings and sacrifice? "I intended that the paintings should be done by someone else," Fr. Helmick writes. "It was only when I realized that no volunteers were coming forward that I ventured on doing them myself."

The tower took Fr. Helmick seven years to complete. "Working out its symbolism has been as fascinating a task as building it," he writes.


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