She has plucked dried gum from the floor. She has emptied the bathroom trash. She has refilled the paper towels, swept the lobby's pink tile, checked the pews and flipped on the lights for grade schoolers practicing their readings for Mass.
What remains for volunteer church cleaner Barb Rutten on this frigid weekday morning is the rug. The dang rug. It sits in front of the side chapel door at Holy Name Catholic Church. On it is a gray film that just won't come off. Near it is a five-gallon bucket of salt, the likely culprit.
But much like the stained-glass saints on the church windows, who represent the virtues of faith, hope, humility and patience, Barb tries to clean that rug. She plugs the old Hoover into an outlet under The Last Supper, stretches the extension cord into the hallway and ...
Vroom! goes the sweeper. Stuck stays the dust.
“They used to use sand,” Barb recalls, explaining how Holy Name once kept its walkways safe without creating a stubborn salt film.
Barb thinks out loud. Maybe she'll find Holy Name School's maintenance man to help. Or maybe she'll take that rug to the carwash.
When the building you clean is your house of worship — and pretty much your second home — you take a certain pride in its appearance. You want it to shine.
That's how the rest of her cleaning crew volunteers feel in their efforts to keep the aging, financially struggling parish afloat.
This is the invisible volunteer work done at countless churches, typically as a way to save money.
“In my own parish of St. Bernard's, parishioners clean the church,” said Deacon Tim McNeil, chancellor for the 23-county Omaha Archdiocese. “They vacuum, they water the plants, they wipe down around the windowsills of stained-glass windows. They mop floors, clean the bathrooms.”
Holy Name church cleaner Jane LaHood said cleaning is a form of prayer.
“It's like your home, you know. You keep your home up,” said Jane. “And that's home.”
The north Omaha parish has been home to generations of Omahans, including the LaHoods. All nine of Tom and Jane LaHood's children graduated from the grade school. Six graduated from Holy Name High, before it closed in 1989. All were married at “the new church,” which was built in 1955. Jane cleans once a month. She is 76.
Peg Worthing is 80. Her six children went to grade school and high school at Holy Name. She cleans the sanctuary, which she measures as “from the altar rail to beyond the crucifix.” She also launders and irons the altar cloths, the white priest albs and other vestments.
Peg called the cleaning “a form of therapy.”
“Keeps me sane,” she said, laughing.
Like Jane and Peg, Barb has called Holy Name home for decades. She and husband Ray joined in 1969. Their four children attended the grade school and the oldest two graduated from Holy Name High.
Some parishioners, Barb and Ray included, have their names on the donor boards in the lobby. Barb points out that their names are in a small typeface, reflecting the size of their donation. I point out that cleaning a church with over 100 pews, plus side chapel, four bathrooms, sacristy, bride's changing room, hallways, stairwells and that dang rug is harder than writing a check.
Barb, 72, merely says that she is one of 19 women — and boy, could they use more help — who share the work.
It's work that came about a few years ago when the pastor came to the parish women's group and made the following pronouncement:
“I'm not going to pay anybody to clean this church anymore. We just can't afford it.”
The pastor asked for volunteers, and as Barb tells it, “everybody just kind of sat there.”
“It was quiet for a long time,” she said. “I just said, 'OK. I'll do it.' ”
Barb found it was hard getting people to sign up. Younger women were swamped with kids and jobs. That left older working women who said they could pitch in on the weekends or retirees like her who, even in advanced years, could help with something, like dusting. One volunteer is 85.
The women take turns cleaning the 18,000-square-foot church. They do everything except strip and wax the tile floor — a job the school maintenance man tackles. Many use their own supplies.
“I can always tell by the smell,” Barb says, “who cleaned!”
Right now, Barb's crew has twice-a-month cleaning responsibilities, but she's at Holy Name about all the time, coming for daily Mass and to help out at the parish thrift store, called Humble Jumble.
Given all the funerals, the weddings, the all-school Masses, Holy Name can be a busy place. And someone has to pick up the tissues from the pews, keep the bathrooms stocked and the lobby looking nice.
Does she feel like Cinderella?
Perhaps one played by Julie Andrews.
“I sing,” Barb confesses. “And it isn't all religious songs, either.”
When the weather isn't so cold, she walks a mile from her home near 50th Street and the Northwest Radial.
People who live out west say, 'You WALK in that neighborhood?' ” Barb says. “I say, 'Oh, good grief! Yes!' ”
Barb floats around the building like a friendly ghost, unlocking and locking doors as she goes. She shows me the St. Gerard's room at the back of church where mothers can go to pray or meditate. St. Gerard is the patron saint of mothers. She shows me the baby crib at the front of church that is filled with new baby clothes and blankies to be donated to a charity that helps poor mothers. She shows me the stairwell she scrubs and the chapel she vacuums and the rooms where they store priestly vestments and fake flowers.
And she shows me that rug by the side door.
“I can't get this rug clean!” she says.
But Barb doesn't give up.
She leaves to find the maintenance man — pausing just once, at the altar.
To bow her head.