An innovative idea for old church buildings

  • March 5, 2010
{mosimage}Faith can move mountains but can it move a church? An American pastor believes so.

Fr. David Dye is overseeing an ambitious and novel project to save an historic church in downtown Buffalo by dismantling it stone by stone and reassembling it in an Atlanta suburb 1,500 kilometres away. The process is being called “preservation through relocation” and, if successful, presents intriguing possibilities for Canadian dioceses facing tough choices about the future of old, underused, sometimes historic, city churches.

Changing attitudes and shifting demographics across North America are forcing many bishops to take a hard look at the costs to maintain aging churches that have several empty pews on Sunday. Over the decades entire communities were founded around these stone-and-mortar churches that were built to last hundreds of years. The churches still stand, solid, but many of the churchgoers have departed, gone to the suburbs or simply left the church.

In Buffalo, St. Gerard Church, a beautiful basilica-style church of limestone, marble interior, granite columns and stained glass, was built in 1911 by German immigrants. But population shifts of recent decades have caused several Buffalo parishes to merge and in 2008 St. Gerard was closed. Empty, unheated and with a roof starting to leak, the church faced slow deterioration, vandalism and, someday, demolition.

At the same time, the suburbs of Atlanta have been booming. Fr. Dye needed a new church with a floor plan, as it turned out, about the same size as St. Gerard’s. Why build from scratch with lesser materials when his parishioners could have an historic stone church that, otherwise, would be unaffordable? So approvals were obtained and a plan devised to relocate St. Gerard’s.

After architects x-ray the building, each stone will be numbered, removed, transported and  reassembled in Atlanta. Total cost: about $15 million, compared to $40 million to build the same church.

The story of St. Gerard’s demise is being played out in many urban parishes across Canada. Heritage Canada’s list of this country’s top-10 endangered sites includes three churches. The situation is acute in Quebec, where Montreal churches have been closing for more than a decade and half the province’s 2,000 churches could be gone within 10 years. Toronto’s day of reckoning is coming. Likewise across Canada.

These churches have borne intimate witness to generations of local history and faith. But in addition to being places of worship, they are often showpieces of 19th century architecture and craftsmanship.

Many, however, have already been sold to developers and retrofitted as condominiums or offices. That may be better than demolition but sad compared to preservation through relocation.

So the St. Gerard Project is well worth watching.

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