Ground broke Sunday to make way for a new and improved St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in Zachary.

Bishop Robert W. Muench, Diocese of Baton Rouge, and the Rev. Jeff Bayhi, of St. John, joined members of the New Building, External Fundraising and Parishioner Pledge Drive committees in wearing hard harts and shoveling the first scoops of dirt on the long-awaited project.

Church parishioner Leonard Aguillard, who donated the land for the new church, joined hundreds of church members, as well as Mayor David Amrhein; Scott Ritter and Stephen Maher, of Ritter Maher Architects; John Meek, of Faulk & Meek general contractors; committee members Billy Kline, Scott Buzhardt, Mack Lea, Kevin Lemoine, Danette Castello, Tom McHugh, Brent Bradley, Georgianna Wall, Judith Morseth and Gena Maughn; and members of the St. John Men’s Club and Knights of Columbus for the ceremony. Committee member Robbie Robinson was unable to attend.

In 2003, under the leadership of the Rev. Kenneth Laird, a committee first convened to explore the need to build a new church to allow for the growing Catholic community in Zachary. At the time, St. John was home to about 485 families.

“Since then, much has happened,” Bayhi said.

The transition of several priests, two hurricanes (Katrina and Gustav) and a few economic obstacles slowed progress on the church, causing the capital campaign to remain almost dormant. Due to the setbacks, the finance committee and Bayhi agreed to temporarily place the project on hold.

In 2010, parishioner Billy Kline was asked to chair a new building committee, which began to re-evaluate the original plan, the reality of a significantly larger congregation, and increased construction costs of more than twice the amount projected in 2003, which were due to inflation and the major storms that caused dramatic increases in overall costs associated with construction throughout Louisiana and Mississippi, explained Bayhi.

By January 2014, the St. John congregation had grown to nearly 1,200 families, but the committees that had since formed felt that the new church would more than accommodate the Catholic community in the area.

According to the plans, the new church will be constructed in a Gothic cruciform design, seat 800-plus people and feature a 40-seat cry room.

The design will include two reconciliation rooms, a separate dedicated choir loft, a large narthex for community gatherings before and after Masses, dedicated space for a Liturgical Ministry, a bride’s room, usher room, a new entrance plaza facing Main Street, a covered drop-off area, improved parking with handicapped spaces near the church, updated and energy-efficient lighting, a new air-conditioning system, and a separate 40-seat adoration chapel that will be connected to the church by a landscaped cloister.

Bayhi said many people have generously donated to the capital campaign for the new church but have chosen to remain anonymous.

“Through all of the obstacles and challenges the congregation has faced over the past 10 years, everyone has remained committed to the task of finally building a place of worship that will be a sign of our faith and love for God and for one another for generations to come,” said Bayhi. “We’ve been fundraising for about 12 years now and are ready to get this project underway. By Christmas 2016, I hope we’ll be celebrating in our new church.”

For information on the new St. John church, visit sjb-ola.org and look for the drop-down menu under Future Church Campaign Information.