NORCROSS, Ga. — All kinds of things happen to churches that close: If they’re not torn down they might be sold to different congregations or be turned into other types of facilities.
In Buffalo, N.Y., a historic church is being preserved in an unusual way — it’s being moved to an area of the country and an archdiocese where the Catholic population is expanding rapidly and booming with well over 900,000 Catholics.
If the plan works, St. Gerard’s will be the largest building in the United States ever taken down, moved and reconstructed.
The move to the Atlanta suburb of Norcross, Ga. — 900 miles away — is more than an engineering feat. It’s a testimony to preserving a magnificent church and using it for its original purpose: the worship of God.
Mary Our Queen Catholic Church in Norcross was founded in 1994 with 70 families. It now has 750 families but still uses its small, temporary church building.
Parishioners raised capital toward constructing a much larger permanent edifice. Desiring a traditional style that would incorporate elements saved from other churches, they had a prominent architect design it.
“Then we saw pictures of St. Gerard’s in the Buffalo Diocese,” said Father David Dye, pastor of Mary Our Queen. “It looked like the building the architect drew.”
Bill Harrison of Harrison Design Associates agreed.
St. Gerard’s, which was closed in 2008, is a one-third scale of the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls, one of Rome’s four major basilicas. The church is 144 feet long, 83 feet wide and 75 feet high. The interior’s 12 solid granite columns are 30 feet high and 3 feet in diameter.
Father Dye and Harrison traveled to Buffalo for a firsthand look at the church, which is named after 11th-century St. Gerard Sagredo, the first bishop of Hungary.
When Father Dye stepped inside, his eyes went immediately to the dome in the sanctuary, “and there’s the crowning of Mary,” filling the dome.
Father Dye, because of his parish’s name, took it as a sign.
He proposed buying the church and moving it to Georgia.
“I was totally amazed, thinking this was a bizarre idea,” recalled St. Gerard’s last pastor, Father Francis Mazur. “But when Father Dye walked into the sanctuary and saw Mary, Our Queen in the dome, he knew this was the building. I’m happy the faith of the founders and the testimony of the people who built that great church will live on 900 miles south. It’s a testimony of the strength of our Catholic faith, and our people here have supported this move enthusiastically.”
Saved by Relocation
Father Mazur describes the Italian Renaissance edifice, built of Indiana limestone in 1911, as “absolutely gorgeous.” It has an interior of travertine marble, ornate plasterwork, gleaming coffered ceilings, and 46 exceptional stained-glass windows. Along the walls the medallion portraits of the popes through Paul VI are depicted just as they are in St. Paul’s in Rome.
“This church is beautifully chaste and pure in its designs,” said Father Dye. “It’s very ornate, very Catholic, yet very simple.”
“We are preserving a building instead of knocking it down,” said Father Mazur. “People will still be able to reverence the sacred art and architecture in another place.”
Calculations showed that it would cost an estimated $40 million or more to build the new church according to the architect’s similar design, but to move and reconstruct this church would be around $15 million, considerably less cost.
When former St. Gerard parishioner and trustee Richard Ciezki heard St. Gerard’s would be saved, he first wondered if he was hearing right, then had “immediately a heart filled with joy that the church would be able to be used for the purpose it was originally built for,” he said, noting the faith and work of the German immigrants who built it.
Mary Our Queen parishioners like Mike Hickey, who with his wife, Susan, was a founding parishioner, were equally enthusiastic.
“It’s a masterpiece that needs to be saved,” Hickey said after visiting the church in Buffalo. “There was great detail attended to in building that church, and there’s no way to re-create it now. Even the acoustics are a choirmaster’s dream.”
According to Kevin Keenan, spokesman for the Buffalo Diocese, the church was closed as a result of diocesan-wide parish reorganization. Only 100 families were still in the parish, and other parishes were within walking distance in the neighborhood.
While 51 closed churches were already sold, no one had shown interest in St. Gerard’s. Then, because of the unique offer to buy and move the church to Georgia, Keenan said the diocese first had long, positive conversations with the organization Preservation Buffalo Niagara to assure them this would be “preservation by relocation.” The preservationists are attached to all the old buildings in the city and like to keep buildings where they are to preserve historic Buffalo.
“We did an awful lot of legwork before this was even announced,” said Keenan. They even talked with government leaders from city to state levels.
Only a very small number of people in the preservation community opposed the move, Keenan pointed out. Preservation Buffalo Niagara even made recommendations on how to make sure the church survives the move.
As for the receiving locale, there has been no opposition in Georgia. “Everyone is very intrigued and excited to see this begin,” said Angie Janesheski, an associate on the architectural team at Harrison Design Associates.
“They see the picture: the glory and beauty of the church, the concept of the church as house of God related to the Incarnation,” noted Father Dye. “They see the glory in the stained-glass windows, in the statues and the altars. People are really hungry for that depth of the church — a church that lasts through time and space.”
How to Move It
The $2.7 million that Mary Our Queen parish had already raised for a new edifice is now allocated to buying and moving St. Gerard’s. Janesheski explained that, in accordance with diocesan practices, Atlanta’s diocesan Catholic Construction Services has set a fundraising goal of $16 million to cover the purchase, the move and the reconstruction in Norcross. Any surplus would become an endowment to maintain the church.
Keenan said the church will be sold at market value but declined to be specific because contracts have not been finalized. Proceeds of the sale would go to Blessed Trinity Church, where St. Gerard’s parishioners now belong.
The lot — approximately 19,000 square feet — will be sold separately, and the likely buyer is Gerard Place, a transitional shelter for homeless single-parent families located in the old convent next door to St. Gerard’s that is operated by women religious of Buffalo. Keenan said it would likely be turned into green space.
Once moved to Norcross, St. Gerard’s will be reassembled on what everyone calls the “beautiful site” Mary Our Queen parish already occupies — 15 acres of greens and trees. Since the parcel is already zoned for the church’s use, there are no conflicts and no special needs to be met at this point.
Harrison Design and the parish are exploring the logistics and modes of transportation to move St. Gerard’s the 900 miles. Two main ones are via truck and train.
“The church itself was put together in parts and pieces,” said Janesheski. “It will be taken apart in reverse, like a giant puzzle. We will be providing the blueprint putting the puzzle together.” The wide array of pieces includes delicate stained glass and giant pieces of stone. The church will sit on a new foundation and superstructure and will be fitted with all updates too.
The current temporary building will become a parish hall.
The first relocation step began at Easter: The nearly 8-foot-tall marble statue of St. Gerard and the paschal candle arrived from Buffalo to be blessed in Atlanta by Archbishop Wilton Gregory.
On Aug. 22, feast of the Queenship of Mary, 20 former St. Gerard parishioners arrived at the Norcross parish for a “Passing of the Key” ceremony at Sunday Mass.
Father Mazur handed over the key to St. Gerard’s while others presented a crucifix from the church. A recording of the bells in St. Gerard’s tall tower played before and after Mass.
“We were taking them not only the spirit of the original builders of the church, but the spirit of the people who last used the church,” said Ciezki.
Plans call for starting to move the limestone blocks before the end of the year, but at this point, it’s a matter of fundraising to reach the goal.
The timing is important. Some stained glass needs looking after, and there is water damage to some areas of plaster.
“The longer it sits, the more the urgency,” Janesheski said. “We would love to move it as soon as possible.”
People across the country have shown interest in helping this unique project, according to Father Dye. Critical eyes are watching the feasibility, because with the population shifts in recent decades, communities booming with new Catholics would like to see beautiful buildings moved rather than deteriorate and lost.
Hickey agreed. He’s hopeful that with the success of this move, northern dioceses will be able to offer additional buildings to those parts of the country that need them.
Father Dye likens this project to God asking and Moses not knowing what he was getting into.
“It’s a pilgrimage. We’re wandering the desert to reach the Promised Land,” he said. “God’s in charge. … I may have decided to do it, but I really think God wants it to be done.”
Joseph Pronechen is based in Trumbull, Connecticut.