ST. PAUL — Stepping into the chapel with Bible in hand, Debbie Mueller touches her fingertips to a tiny basin of Holy Water and gets ready to pray. It's nearly 3 a.m.
She signs her name into a log book, and turns to say hello to Don Ziegemeier, who is kneeling in one of the pews nearby. He's been there since 2 a.m.
In front of them on a white altar, two candles glow inside red glass holders on each side of a cross. In the center is the monstrance, a special vessel containing the consecrated host that Catholics believe is the body of Christ.
This is the perpetual adoration chapel at St. Paul Catholic Church, where Mueller, Ziegemeier and other volunteers pray 24 hours a day, seven days a week, nearly 365 days a year. (The chapel is dark for 50 hours leading up to Easter.)
"It's a time when, if you have some things on your heart, you can spend it with Jesus and talk it over with him," said Mueller, 57, who has prayed in the 3 a.m. time slot for almost all of the 17 years since the chapel has been open. "I know that when I go to him, he listens. It just gives me hope and courage."
Of about 200 parishes in the St. Louis Archdiocese, 18 churches have chapels for perpetual adoration, a Roman Catholic ritual of round-the-clock prayer in front of the Eucharist, based on the belief that the bread is the body of Jesus. Other Catholic churches hold adoration hours on certain days of the week.
Pope John Paul II triggered a rise in the number of parishes with perpetual adoration. After becoming pope in 1978, he urged Catholics to practice the centuries-old ritual.
The number of parishes in the St. Louis Archdiocese with perpetual adoration has been growing since the mid-1990s, said the Rev. Joe Simon, chaplain of the Archbishop's Committee for Eucharistic Adoration. Nationwide, there are about 800 churches with perpetual adoration, according to the Real Presence Eucharistic Education and Adoration Association.
Nina Groeblinghoff, who helped start perpetual adoration at St. Paul, remembers that the late-night prayer shifts filled up the quickest. Many, like Ziegemeier, have continued in their same shift. "I figured nobody would take it," he said.
HEART OF COMMUNITY
In St. Paul, a city of about 1,600 in St. Charles County, the church is at the center of the community. Generations of families have been members of the church, which was established more than 150 years ago. The church has about 680 families.
Some members had doubts that volunteers would fill 168 hours a week when Monsignor Bernard Boessen, who was pastor at St. Paul in 1991, encouraged the church to start the perpetual adoration chapel. Through the years, late-night weekend shifts have been difficult to fill, but the perpetual adoration chapel has never struggled to keep going, said Monsignor John Hickel, current pastor at St. Paul.
"We treasure this," he said. "You can pray out of a book or you can pray from your heart. It's something I will sustain as long as I'm here."
It's a way to pray without distractions, said Teresa Boehmer, 44, mother of three. She believes in the power of the cards signed by adorers and sent to people they are praying for. "People have said they open those up and could just feel the prayers going out for them," she said. "I think miracles happen through that chapel all the time."
Doctors had recently given one member of their church a grim diagnosis of Lou Gehrig's disease. He was in the thoughts of those praying in the chapel, and later was given a better outlook when the diagnosis changed to Parkinson's disease.
FOCUSING ON GOD
Many of the adorers say their hour in the prayer chapel is the quickest and most peaceful of the week. Some listen to soft music. Everyone comes with a purpose of focusing on God.
"I still looked forward to that hour. It's just a part of my life now. A few times, I just sat there and cried," said Mueller, whose mother died this year after several years with Alzheimer's disease. "Prayers are answered, maybe not always the way we want them to be, but I know they are answered his way." [...]