New life for old Communion rail

Elsabeth (Roush) Hepworth
Ryan Roush-Krafka, Father Bill Roush and Jeanette Roush-Krafka show off the “new” loft railing at St. Mary Church in Riverside. The Roush-Krafkas refurbished the church’s old Communion rail, which had been sitting in storage, and placed it atop the current loft rail to address a rail height safety issue.

By Lindsay Steele
The Catholic Messenger

RIVERSIDE — For decades, the old Communion rail from St. Mary Church lay idle and dusty — first in the church basement, and later in Barb and Richard Simon’s barn.
The Simons took the four pieces of the railing to their property in rural Riverside in the mid-1980s when the priest at the time expressed an interest in discarding them. “I was working for the church at that time,” Barb Simon recalled. “I thought somebody, someday, might want to do something with them.” She was right.

Earlier this year, when inspectors deemed the choir loft railing to be too short for safety standards, pastor Father Bill Roush remembered hearing stories about the Communion rail. He wondered if it could be repurposed to add some height to the loft railing.

He wasn’t sure if it would be possible. Maybe the Communion rail was too far gone to be restored. Maybe the styles wouldn’t match. When he saw the Communion rail with son-in-law, Ryan Roush-Krafka, who owns a custom woodworking business, it seemed as if the upcycle just might work. “The condition was great,” Roush-Krafka said. “The paint was very dirty from all the dust, but underneath it was all there.” He believes the rail was made of poplar or maple, which is durable but will deteriorate if stored in moist conditions. He credited the Simons for keeping the rail dry, elevated and away from the elements for more than 30 years.


From another age

Barb Simon, 75, recalls using the Communion rail as a child. At the time, persons receiving the Eucharist knelt at the rail, which went out of use after Vatican II. “A lot of people don’t remember them,” she said.

Barb Simon does not know the age of the Communion rail. It’s at least as old as the “new church,” built circa 1905. She believes the rail could be older. The priest at the time, according to church documents, was keen on upcycling — much like Father Roush today. “He’s good at preserving the past and not thinking we have to do something new all the time,” Barb Simon said of Father Roush.

This photo shows part of the old St. Mary’s Communion rail prior to restoration.

A family affair

Ryan Roush-Krafka runs Krafka Kraft alongside his wife, Father Roush’s daughter, Jeanette. Together, the 30-something couple makes wooden furniture and custom gifts, with Ryan specializing in woodworking and Jeanette specializing in finishing and fine detailing. The Roush-Krafkas, members of St. Mary Parish in Iowa City, have completed jobs for other parishes in the area. However, Father Roush wanted other local artisans to have an equal chance at earning the job. The parish council accepted bids from several local artisans; Krafka Kraft’s bid came in “far below” the others, Father Roush said.

Earlier this year, Ryan hauled the rail’s two, long sidepieces and two gates to his workshop in Solon. The wood was in good shape, and power washing removed most of the old paint. He determined that the sidepieces — which totaled about 350 pounds — would need to be connected and trimmed to fit properly. Once connected, they took up about half the space in the workshop. Ryan sanded down the rail and created bases that allowed him to attach the Communion rail atop the wooden loft railing.

Elsabeth Hepworth
Ryan and Jeanette Roush-Krafka put the finishing touches on the Communion rail.

The couple primed and painted the Communion rail in a cream color to match the accent paint of the loft railing. In late summer, they took the Communion rail back to the church, where Jeanette added gold leaf detailing.

This final step led to some treasured father-daughter bonding time. During the three days she spent working on the detailing, “I’d steal stuff from my dad’s fridge,” she quipped. “I’d go over to the rectory and visit with him. He would come sit next to me and chat while I was working. That’s not something I’ve really experienced since high school. It was a fun throwback!”

Elsabeth Hepworth
Ryan Roush-Krafka created and installed glass barriers to fill out the remaining width of the loft railing.


The Communion rail did not fit the entire length of the choir loft, so Ryan created glass barriers with wooden bases for the side railings closest to the wall. The rail and glass panels were ready for installation at the end of August. About 10 men from the parish volunteered to raise them up with ropes. Ryan admitted being “nervous” about seeing months of work hoisted up; he also worried about the safety of the volunteers. However, the process went smoothly. Once elevated, he attached the pieces to the existing railing. “It went together naturally. We didn’t have to do any adjusting. It just fell into place.”

The finished product

Seeing the repurposed, refinished rail for the first time, Barb Simon was impressed. “It looked so good,” she gushed. “It’s neat to see it back again.” Still, she admits it will “take some getting used to, seeing it up there rather than down below!” For Father Roush, the rail “looks like it belongs there, and that’s what I intended.”

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