Beginning the baptismal journey

News | May 20, 2021

It’s a familiar sight at St. Paul but many don’t know the story behind it. The baptismal font. The font holds a special place in many hearts. It is a symbol of joyful celebration, welcoming young and old alike into the Christian community. It is a place where families and individuals gather together in support of a new path and journey forward.

In Scandinavian and many other European churches, often a votive or model ship would be constructed by shipbuilders and donated to the church. The ship would be hung from the ceiling of the church. This symbolizes the coastal nature of these countries. In fact, the word “nave” comes from the word “navis” which is Latin for “ship,” however, a nave is also the architectural term for where the congregation gathers in a church.

St. Paul is no different than these coastal churches, with the beautiful Mississippi River just a few miles down the hill. The next time you are in the Sanctuary at St. Paul, you may notice many other waterfront features including arching metal that looks like bridges. Every detail was thoroughly thought out by the architects and builders who created the new Sanctuary. And the design of the baptismal font is no exception.

The font was crafted into the shape of the prow of a ship. The literal meaning of “prow” translates to “in front” and is the forward-most part of the ship. The wooden bottom of the font represents the keel or the backbone of the ship. The font, just like a ship, is the start of a wonderful journey, the baptismal journey.

But it’s what’s on the inside of the baptismal font that makes it an even more interesting piece. There is a lot more going on inside than meets the eye and the inner workings were designed and constructed by St. Paul member, Ron Welser.

The front end of the font is held in place by special magnets that are incredibly strong, but you can remove the front piece to take a peek inside. The inside is packed with tubes, wires, pumps, and a tank that make the entire font system function.

The mechanism is quite intricate. Ron was inspired to create the original piece after watching a program about fish tanks and connected with a local plastics company to create the piece. While Ron had never built something of this nature, he and his brother work with industrial pumps and air compressors with A-L-L Equipment.

“I’d never built anything like this before,” Ron said. “But my experience with industrial pumps lent itself well to the project.”

The inner workings contain a pump and a filtration system. The water runs through an ultraviolet light system to kill bacteria be- fore making its way to the surface. Ron even added valves that can be adjusted to control the speed of the water pumps.

“I have it set up so it will operate on a regular basis,” Ron said. “It’s got a whole pump, electricity, filtration system, a heater all inside there. It’s set up so the water comes out of the pump, and through the filters, then goes into the bottom of the glass cylinder and we can adjust how quickly that happens.”

Ron has spent at least four hours crafting each new pump and assembling its pieces.

“The tank is an acrylic tank we made out of a big sheet of acrylic,” he said. “You cut it and glue it all together. You could take that same material and make a fish tank out of it.”

What is currently sitting inside the baptismal font is Ron’s third iteration of the water pump. Each time, he makes improvements to the functionality of the tank.

“The first system had a bigger pump and it made too much noise so I started over. After several years we had a leak in the second tank,” Ron said. “If you don’t cut that material just perfectly, it doesn’t glue perfectly, and then it leaks.”

Peering down into the reservoir of the font, you’ll notice the rocks that sit inside. But those rocks aren’t just for show.

“It’s nice to have added the rocks, those were added later. They weren’t originally in there,” he said. “They take up volume so the tank fills without needing as much water in the reservoir.”

Ron worked closely with Jay Stratton, a woodworker from the Quad Cities and owner of Jay Stratton Wood, to create the base of the font and the mechanism that’s inside.

“When Jay and I were in the process of building it, we got together and I told him what I needed, I needed to be able to put a tank in there,” Ron said. “He’d already started creating the base and the sides so we couldn’t make the tank too big. One of the most important parts was that the controls needed to get to the electricity underneath the font in the floor so he cut all of that out so it could do that.”

Jay created the pieces in the detached garage at his home in Bettendorf, IA.

“It made for a short commute,” Jay said. “It works well for finishing my projects, I walk out of the house and I’m at work.”

Jay’s handiwork extends beyond the font and into other parts of the Sanctuary.

“I crafted the majority of the woodworking pieces around the Sanctuary including the wooden part of the cross, the altar, and the sound desk in the back. I also constructed the altar and the lectern in the Chapel.”

Designed by an architect, the bronze piece that sits on top was hand cast by an artist in Wisconsin. It is a one-of-a-kind piece with intricate textures and details.

Ron’s font project keeps him inspired to continually make improvements and adjustments to the font.

“I want to put a small light in the glass cylinder,” he said. “The LED lights that are waterproof and battery-powered. You can just set it in there and get a little glow.”

The next time you step into the Sanctuary, take a few moments to reflect on the thoughtful work of many talented artists, the symbolism of the water, and the ship that takes those along to begin the baptismal journey.

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