ROCHESTER, N.Y. — Opponents of the renovation of Sacred Heart Cathedral here are fighting their battle on two fronts these days by working with a canon lawyer and attempting to have the building declared a landmark by the city.

The Sacred Heart Preservation Committee, which has hired canon lawyer Alan Kershaw to challenge the renovation in Rome, lost its initial bid to have the cathedral designated a landmark on Oct. 7 when the city planning commission voted 5-3 against the proposal.

Now nine members of the committee have filed a petition in the Monroe County division of the New York State Supreme Court to ask that the planning commission decision be overturned.

Renovation plans call for replacing the cathedral's marble altar with a new one to be located in the nave on a raised platform. Other changes will include relocating the tabernacle to a chapel and removing the baldacchino over the high altar and the pedestal under the pulpit. The diocese also plans to restore the cathedral's stained-glass windows and restore and enhance the ceiling.

Alan Knauf, the attorney representing the group, said his clients allege the commission did not apply the proper tests to the decision. The panel, he said, should have considered only whether the building was a landmark but instead reviewed the appropriateness of the proposed changes, a question he said should have been left to the city's preservation board once landmark status was granted.

A spokesman for the Rochester Diocese, which opposes landmark status for the cathedral on grounds it would place a financial burden on the church whenever work has to be done on the structure, said the planning commission made the right decision.

“We view the church as something that's alive, ever reforming, and we want to be able to respond to changing times and reform,” spokesman Michael Tedesco said. “When you have some of the restrictions landmark status brings about, it doesn't allow for that.”

However, Michael Brennan, a member of the executive board of the Sacred Heart Preservation Committee and one of the nine petitioners, said landmark status would only apply to dramatic changes in the building. He said it would still allow for such alterations as the removal of pews and even replacement of the altar.

“What [would be] protected [is] that sense of Gothic interior,” he said. “They could not destroy the sanctuary, which they're doing.”

Brennan said his group considers the proposed changes destructive. He thinks it is important to preserve the cathedral as a landmark in part because Fulton J. Sheen, who is being considered for beatification, served there as bishop of Rochester from 1966 to 1969. Brennan's group believes this makes the cathedral a potential third-class relic.

“If Archbishop Sheen becomes a saint, the cathedral would be a pilgrimage site,” he said. “If much of what he used is decimated, it would lose its attraction.”

City planning commission members, however, agreed with the diocese that landmark status could hinder the renovation plans, which will involve a substantial investment in the Maplewood neighborhood where the cathedral is located.

Although work is not scheduled to begin until April, some scaffolding has been temporarily erected in the cathedral so one area can be redecorated, allowing the architect, renovation committee and parishioners to assess the colors and lighting.

In deciding to seek landmark status for the project, Brennan said his group considered the risks of getting the government involved in a church matter but thought the benefits outweighed the liabilities.

“Without the images and memories of the community in place in Archbishop Sheen's cathedral, we were pushed to drastic options,” he said.

Financial Burdens

However, diocesan officials in other places have sometimes discovered that landmark status for churches can be a financial burden, as the Rochester Diocese has argued.

In the San Francisco Archdiocese, for example, the Church initially cooperated with an effort to landmark its buildings, but after the 1989 earthquake when the state required all unreinforced masonry buildings to be retrofitted, preservation of the churches became cost-prohibitive.

Les McDonald, director of administrative services for the Archdiocese of San Francisco, said the archdiocese discovered that once a building has landmark status it is difficult to raze, convert or even repair because changes must be approved by a local board.

For example, he said, the windows in one archdiocesan church that has been closed for a decade are currently failing.

“I have to ask permission to have them removed, and I might not be granted permission,” McDonald said. “Then what do you do? They might ask or require us to spend money to repair existing stained glass on a building we would never use again.”

After the 1989 earthquake, when local preservationists discovered the archdiocese wanted to raze or convert some of the severely damaged buildings, they mounted an effort to have the structures declared landmarks. The archdiocese responded by working for passage of a bill that now exempts buildings owned by religious congregations from being landmarked without the owner's consent.

“I don't see any kind of a win at all for the diocese to landmark buildings,” McDonald said. “It puts restrictions on the building that are sometimes impossible for the diocese to adhere to.”

Brennan said the Rochester group is continuing to pursue its options in canon law with Kershaw, who represented opponents of the Milwaukee cathedral renovation, which made changes very similar to the ones proposed in Rochester.

“We still have expectations of positive feedback coming from the canon law process,” Brennan said.

Philip Gray, a canon lawyer from Hopedale, Ohio, said the faithful of a diocese have the right to question church renovation plans if they think their bishop might be violating disciplinary law. Also, he said, parishioners who donate money for a specific memorial in a church have the right to see that their gifts are protected during renovation projects.

Gray said although bishops are the chief shepherds of their dioceses, they are still bound by universal liturgical norms when it comes to church renovations.

He said he does not necessarily consider it bad to designate a church as a landmark because canon law encourages the use of secular law to protect church properties and the rights of the faithful.

Judy Roberts is based in Millbury, Ohio.