Preservation through relocation. That’s the aim of a Roman Catholic parish in suburban Atlanta that plans to relocate a shuttered church in upstate New York — recycling it piece by piece 900 miles south.
The 99-year-old St. Gerard’s Church in Buffalo was closed in 2008 in a diocese-wide restructuring prompted in part by declining membership. Around that time, Mary Our Queen in Norcross, Ga., was booming — with a membership of 750 families and a sanctuary built for 600.
“We needed more space,” said Rev. David Dye, who conceived a plan to buy and transport the aging church.
Initially, he said, his congregation retained a local architect to design a new space that would be filled with antiques and relics from other churches. On a trip to Buffalo, Dye was floored by the limestone façade and stained glass of St. Gerard’s. “The architect just said, ‘We’ve been talking about bits and pieces. We should bring the whole building,’” Dye recalled.
Now Mary Our Queen is raising $16.5 million for the ambitious project: to take St. Gerard’s apart stone by stone, and ship it to Atlanta, where it will be painstakingly reassembled. (The campaign is being documented on a website, Movedbygrace.com.)
Constructed with Indiana limestone, St. Gerard’s is modeled after the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls in Rome. The 12,000 square-foot church is graced with soaring ceilings, a 110-foot bell tower and stained glass windows throughout.
Some cosmetic fixes are in the works. But the church’s large wooden confessionals will be moved to Atlanta along with a marble alter. Canvas paintings on the walls will be peeled off and restored once they reach their destination. “Restoration, repairs will have to be done,” said Dye.
Not lost on Dye and his congregation is the environmental impact of their project. Pews will be refinished, but no new trees will be cut down. The exterior limestone will be transported, avoiding a trip to the quarry.
“It is something that we’ve definitely not only thought about, we have a lot of interest in that aspect,” he said. “We didn’t set out to be environmentally friendly,” said Dye, but the congregation is “very pleased about that part.”
So is the church’s old Buffalo constituency. The final mass at St. Gerard’s was celebrated in January 2008, as the diocese was making plans to sell the building.
“When I heard this news, it was the answer to my prayers,” Dorothy Eckl, a former church trustee and longtime parishioner, said in an interview with the Western New York Catholic, the diocesan newspaper. “It’s great that our legacy will live on in Georgia.”
Once the church is moved, the New York site will benefit from an environmental boost. “The property will be turned into green space,” according to Kevin Keenan, director of communications for the Diocese of Buffalo. Residents of transitional housing adjacent to the church will have access to the space. “A marker will also be placed, noting the original location of St. Gerard Church,” he said.
Only the Buffalo City Council has resisted the idea. “It’s not right,” Council President David Franczyk told The Associated Press. “You can’t strip-mine a city’s historic heritage.”
But Atlanta preservationist Rodney Cook, an enthusiastic proponent of the project, envisions a new trend. Southern churches are booming, even as congregations in the Northeast are dwindling. “With all this growth and thriving, it seems perfectly appropriate for these buildings to come here,” said Cook, who is president of the National Monuments Foundation.
St. Gerard’s is a “sublime” specimen of ecclesiastic architecture, he said. “We don’t build like that anymore,” he said. “There’s a lot of really astonishing architecture that we did have that we no longer have, so I see it as a great tribute, this sort of exchange.”
Indeed, the Notre Dame School of Architecture plans to study the environmental impact of the move, which could pave the way for future “green” relocation projects.
“This does have the potential for becoming a way of preserving durable building stock,” said Aimee Buccellato, an assistant professor at the architecture school who is spearheading the research project. “From my own perspective, it’s certainly an interesting case study about preservation,” she said.
She said the benefits of preserving a building, in place, are already well-known. “To adapt and reuse a solidly built, long-life building in place is fundamentally the largest-scale recycling you can do,” she said. Less clear is the value of preserving a building in another location. To probe the question further, Buccellato plans to use digital and manual methods to collect data.
She said it is impossible to ignore the “intangible” aspects, including the feelings people have for popular civic buildings.
“These buildings do have value,” she said. “They will be loved, they will be maintained, and the buildings that can perform like that, those are durable buildings, they are sustainable buildings. They are green buildings.”