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Heavenly history: Book captures art of Catholic churches

Heavenly history: Book captures art of Catholic churches


Mark Scott Abeln believes Catholic churches are more than just places of worship. He views them as art.

"I think they're beautiful," said Abeln, 46, a St. Louis Hills resident.

For years these religious structures have served as subjects for his photography. His photographs have appeared on a church calendar, a diocesan directory and numerous church bulletins. Now, Abeln's work is featured in a coffee table book.

The hardback book, "Catholic St. Louis: A Pictorial History," showcases nearly 40 Catholic churches that range from traditional to modern styles. It was released by Reedy Press, a local publisher, May 1 and may be purchased in bookstores.

The words of the Rev. William Barnaby Faherty, a longtime historian and expert on churches, accompany the colorful array of photographs, giving a brief synopsis of each church pictured. Faherty, a Jesuit, also provides a concise history of the Catholic Church in St. Louis and highlights the role of prominent religious officials.

The book features photographs of statues, stained glass windows, mosaics, altars, bell towers and steeples. It showcases a variety of church styles including Gothic, baroque and modern.

Abeln journeyed to the top of the Compton Hill Water Tower to photograph the exterior of the New Cathedral. To capture the picturesque image of Downtown St. Louis that includes a church steeple rising from the skyline, he traveled to the top of the former South Side National Bank. He also climbed on top of his sports utility vehicle to capture some other outside shots.

For interior photos, Abeln positioned his digital camera on a tripod and took the same shot numerous times at various exposures. Some exposures were as short as 30 seconds, others as long as two minutes. Abeln then fused these photographs together on the computer to create his final image.

"My intent is to provide a very realistic effect," he said.

Abeln is a member of St. Francis De Sales, which happens to be his favorite church featured in the book. He is captivated by the altar, which rises above the church floor. From a distance it looks off-white, but upon closer inspection it includes hints of red, blue and gold, he said.

Faherty, 94, has a fondness for Epiphany of Our Lord.

"That's where I said my first mass in 1944," he said.

The church also brings back memories of his childhood. It is the parish he attended when growing up. He remembers being a boy in grade school, living a block from the school and always arriving late.

"I'd hear the first bell, and then I would get up," he said with a laugh.

Abeln always has dabbled in photography. He worked on the yearbook staff in high school. As a teenager, he took pictures of classmates, family, friends and pets. He also had a darkroom where he processed his own images.

Abeln almost gave up the hobby when digital technology changed the process. He was unhappy with the quality.

His passion was reignited several years later with the encouragement of a friend. She suffered from type one diabetes. Abeln spent a lot of time near her and helped care for her.

With time on his hands, Abeln honed his skills in digital photography. He read books, asked questions in Internet forums, sought advice from other photographers and practiced. He mastered it.

The former engineer now is trying to make a living as a photographer. The 3 a.m. phone calls, sleeping on the floor in the computer room and working 20-hour weekends made him decide to quit engineering.

"I just want to avoid stress; it's not healthy," Abeln said. "Life is short. Photography is good for my health."

Want to buy the book?

What: "Catholic St. Louis: A Pictorial History."

Where: Retail bookstores or online at

Cost: $32.95

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