Tuesday, October 21, 2008

American Church Moves South. Literally.

Down in the place where they can't build (or expand) churches fast enough -- namely, The Entire South -- a friend always keeps musing, and grieving, that they can't just bring relocate at least some of the (many) closed Northeastern temples of old and keep 'em in good use.

Windows, statues and other pieces from decommissioned structures have routinely been recycled... but now, in a first as monumental as the building itself, a wholesale relocation just might happen to a grand, now-shuttered Buffalo church:

A parish in the Archdiocese of Atlanta wants to buy St. Gerard Church at Bailey and East Delavan avenues, dismantle the basilica-style structure and ship it to Norcross, Ga., where it would be reassembled.

Officials of the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo expressed optimism about the unusual plan, which they call “preservation by relocation.” They say moving the grand church, which was built in 1911, will allow it to be used as intended and prevent it from falling into disrepair.

“It’s a building where the prospects of sale are nonexistent, and you have the ability to reuse it as a Catholic church. This is an opportunity,” said Kevin A. Keenan, diocesan spokesman who has been meeting with city officials.

Dismantling and shipping the 2,000-pound Indiana limestone blocks from the exterior, altars, doors, interior columns, pews, windows and steel beams would cost $3 million, estimated the Rev. David M. Dye, administrator of Mary Our Queen parish in Norcross, about 20 miles northeast of downtown Atlanta.

Green space and a marker would be left at the church site, diocesan officials said.

Dye said he did not yet know the price tag for reconstruction. A computer analysis of St. Gerard would help determine that.

The Norcross parish of about 700 families was formed in 1994 and has been worshipping in temporary space. It is in the midst of a multimillion-dollar building campaign and had an architectural design for a new church drawn up before Dye began looking for vacant churches in dioceses in the Northeast.

The priest visited the Archdiocese of Boston and discussed options with representatives from the Diocese of Allentown in Pennsylvania before turning his attention to Buffalo and St. Gerard.

The Buffalo church “matches the design we’ve already done,” he said. “It looks exactly like what the architect has drawn.”

But some preservationists are appalled by the proposal and have initiated efforts to designate St. Gerard a historic landmark and prevent it from being moved.

“This is not preservation by any stretch of the imagination,” said Timothy A. Tielman, executive director of the Campaign for Greater Buffalo History, Architecture & Culture and a member of the Buffalo Preservation Board.

No immediate reuse for the church “doesn’t mean you just pack it in a box and let someone take it. It’s disturbing,” he added. “It is analogous to the situations that European countries and Egypt faced in the early 20th century, when so much of their legacy was literally packed up and shipped away to other parts of Europe and the United States.”....

Modeled after St. Paul’s Outside the Walls, one of four major basilicas in Catholicism and the second-largest church in Rome, St. Gerard features 12 granite columns, ornamental coffered ceilings and a dome in the apse with a fresco painting of the coronation of Mary as Queen of Heaven.

Dye “was taken aback by” the fresco, said Mazur, who showed the church to the Georgia priest in August.

Other area Catholic churches are unlikely to take a similar path, Keenan said.

“We don’t anticipate coming back to them a year from now and saying, ‘Guess what? We’ve [got] another one.’ This is unique,” he said.

For all of the closings in the Northeast, some dioceses in the south hardly can keep up with the growth of the Catholic faith in traditionally Bible-belt territory.

“We can’t open Catholic churches it seems fast enough. They’re predicting 30 to 40 new parishes here in the next 25 years,” Dye said.

Currently home to 84 parishes, the Atlanta church now reports a membership just short of 800,000 Catholics -- more than seven times what it was in 1980; almost triple its size only eight short years ago.

A year ago this week, Stateside Catholicism shook as, for the first time in its history, "the dynamism and vitality" of the rising Southern church won the region its highest possible sign of approval and the long-awaited sign of its maturity: the red hat... just the first of several expected to leave their traditional stations on these shores over the coming years to better reflect the changing face of the US church.

PHOTO: Sharon Cantillon/The Buffalo News