At certain times during Mass, the Rev. Gregory Wilson lifts his eyes to pray and sees a basketball hoop hanging over his head.
For years, the congregation of St. Mary Help of Christians in Aiken has worshipped in the family life center, St. Angela Hall.
It outgrew the towering, Gothic church on Park Avenue where Aiken Catholics have worshipped for more than a century.
This Sunday, the church breaks ground on a new St. Mary, a $8.9 million building that can seat four times as many people.
The Bishop of Charleston, S.C., the Rev. Robert E. Guglielmone, will celebrate Mass, followed by a procession to the empty lot that will soon be the home of new, nearly 1,000-seat church.
By the time it’s finished, St. Mary be able to make a distinct claim: “We’ll have three church buildings from three centuries still in use,” Wilson said.
There’s Sainte Claire’s Chapel, designed by architect James Renwick after an earlier church was swept away by a hurricane. The 1879 building, which seats about 50, was the parish church until 1905, when the present-day church was constructed. It seats about 250 people, tightly.
“You really have to jam people in there,” Wilson said.
Nonetheless, he added, “It did serve us well for 100 years.”
As Aiken grew, so did the congregation.
Around 2000, some Masses were moved to the much larger St. Angela Hall. Now all but two Masses are held there. The church of 1,700 families has five Masses each weekend.
More than 20 hours go into setting up the gym for Mass each week, said Janet Augeri Morris, facilities director.
St. Mary considered expanding its existing church but decided it wasn’t cost-effective.
Expansion would have required tearing down the rectory and the adjacent Smith Hall, both still useful spaces. New construction also meant using the latest in energy-saving materials. Plus, St. Mary already owned the lot.
“It seemed providential,” Wilson said. “They’ve had (the lot) since the ’80s, but didn’t know what to do with it.”
The existing 1905 church and chapel will be kept for weddings, funerals and other special Masses.
The new church’s initial plans for construction include a nave, transepts and sanctuary in the shape of a cross, and the first of two wings. Phase two of the project includes a bell tower, a second wing and offices at a cost of an additional $1.5 million.
The two wings eventually will reach out like arms of the church, with a courtyard in between, Wilson said.
The ground is already marked off in the shape of the new church at the lot between Fairfield and Union streets, near the rebuilt Aiken Railroad Depot.
Building contractor RW Allen made a simple wooden cross for the site of the future altar. Guglielmone will bless the site with holy water Sunday.
“There’s a lot of excitement,” Wilson said. “There are a lot of people who have waited for this day to come.”
The new church is expected to be completed by Christmas 2015 or early 2016.