Tuesday, December 02, 2008

An Intriguing Solution to Northeast Church Closures and Southeast Church Construction

While much ink (virtual or otherwise) is expended on the institutional crisis in Catholic New England and parts of the Midwest, where parish closings and amalgamations have become tragically common, less is said about the ecclesiastica building boom in other parts of the country, where rising numbers of Catholics have made enormous new parishes ubiquitous. Admitted, the two factors are not necessarily analogous, nor do they cancel each other out, but there is a certain element of demographic shift in play here.

One really wonderfully tidy solution to the problem would be to simply move the grand old immigrant parish churches of the north down to the burgeoning Catholic population in the American south. Too fantastic, you say? William Randolph Hearst shipped a whole monastery to San Francisco at one point during his rapacious art-collecting career, so it is in theory possible, if not easy. Fortunately for us, someone with vision (and a certain degree of humor, I would think) is considering turning such a theoretical possibility into reality. A reader writes:

A large number of churches in the Diocese of Buffalo, New York have recently been closed and the church structures boarded up waiting for someone to rescue them. In the past when I have experienced this type of situation I have often thought "if only we could pick up the church and move it to someplace where it could be used". Well that very thing has happened with St Gerard Church in Buffalo. It is currently being examined to see how to dismantle the church (a replica of one of the churches in Rome, but I don't remember which one), move it to Norcross, Georgia and reassembled it as Mary Our Queen Church. The parish had been in the process of designing a new church and somehow found out about the plight of St. Gerard's. Their new church design was very similar to St. Gerard's.

Your recent architecture articles in the New Liturgical Movement reminded me of this situation and I thought you might be interested.

I didn't see anything at the website for Mary Our Queen except a drawing of their concept church [It does not appear to be there any longer. --MGA]; but I do know that there were a couple of articles a few weeks ago in the Buffalo News regarding this situation.
Our reader is indeed correct, and articles on this extraordinary endeavor can be found here and here. An extract:
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. [Fr.] David M. Dye, administrator of Mary Our Queen parish in Norcross, about 20 miles northeast of downtown Atlanta.
Incidentally, later on in the article, the parish boom is mentioned in passing, viz., "'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." Elsewhere in the article, one Atlanta diocesan spokesman considers it unlikely other churches will adopt such a plan, but I ask, why not? Why let good stone go to waste in this age of marvels?

Such a solution, nonetheless, is not a universal panacea. New parishes need to be built and new generations of architects have their chance to practice, to work within our grand tradition, and bring beauty to the Church. Otherwise, we risk ending up like the late Roman empire, decorating our monuments with spoglia borrowed from better times. The arts must be fostered as well as being preserved.

That being said, it is a shame to let good churches go to waste--and there are a quite exceptional number of good, almost abandoned churches, in our northern cities--and I do hope projects like this will not be as rare as some have assumed. At the very least transplanted churches can serve as good models for future design in a region largely devoid of monumental ecclesiastical architecture.

One unanswered question I have is who was the architect who designed the proposed Romanesque structure the old church is going to replace? I am curious to know what it looked like, and how close of a match it was to St. Gerard's.

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