By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published February 4, 2010
Marble block by marble block, that’s how parishioners at Mary Our Queen Church hope to move a historic, basilica-style church in Buffalo, N.Y., to the Atlanta suburbs.
Backers of the idea—dubbed “preservation through relocation”—see it as an opportunity to reuse an architectural gem for a parish that has outgrown its own church.
It is nearly 1,000 miles between the snow belt of New York to the growing parish in Norcross, but supporters said the plan would allow the former St. Gerard Church to once again be a spiritual home for Catholics.
How does one move a church of this size?
“It is quite simple. It is not very complicated. The last things they did will be the first things we do. But it is not going to Home Depot and buying a ready-made church,” said Father David Dye, the administrator of Mary Our Queen.
Taking down the church is done piece by piece. What happens is a team of architects performs what is essentially a CAT scan of the building to figure out how to take it apart like a puzzle. The blocks are numbered and the building is taken down. The reverse would be done in Georgia: The numbered blocks are put back together again as the building rises on the 15 acres of Mary Our Queen parish.
The Atlanta Archdiocese is undergoing a growth spurt and the Catholic Church in Buffalo grows smaller with an abundance of church buildings and the diocese slated to close 20 churches. Estimates put the number of Catholics in North Georgia at 750,000.
The Norcross parish has a fundraising campaign to replace its 15,000-square-foot temporary church. The 750 families have outgrown the building.
Father Dye floated the idea: buy and move a classic church. He visited places in the Boston Archdiocese and elsewhere before finding the Buffalo church.
The 1911 Buffalo church, built by German Catholic immigrants, was modeled after a Rome basilica, St. Paul’s Outside the Walls. With 12 granite columns and ornamental ceilings, the church’s domed apse has a painting of the coronation of Mary as Queen of Heaven. It was closed in early 2008 as the Buffalo Diocese deals with a declining number of parishioners and surplus of church buildings.
It turned out the floor plan and style of the now closed St. Gerard Church were within five percent of the blueprints designed for a proposed new church in Norcross. The biggest difference between the planned design and the existing church is St. Gerard’s was made out of a better quality of material with its Indiana limestone exterior and travertine marble and plaster on the inside.
Father Dye said the historic church could serve as a monument to inspire people.
“It is a beautiful church, which I think churches should be,” Father Dye said, adding that he regrets the church in Buffalo could not remain a thriving faith community. This is an option to preserve a place where family histories were made, he said.
The parish recently started a media campaign to spotlight the project. It is hoped a story in a national newspaper may encourage a donor to step forward. It unveiled a Web site to encourage support for the move: www.movedbygrace.com.
According to the project’s Web site, relocating the 98-year-old church from Buffalo will cost an estimated $15 million. Estimates of what it would cost to build a similar style church at today’s prices top $40 million.
Parishioners at Mary Our Queen Church had already raised $3 million for the construction of a new church and have now committed those funds to the relocation effort.
“It is pretty much a bargain for what it is,” Father Dye said. A timeline to begin work will only be met if the financial resources are in place, he said.
He said a lot of people ask about the cost. Father Dye said wrestling with the price is a struggle, much like the Gospel account of disciples protesting after a woman washes Jesus’ feet with costly perfume that the money could have been given to the poor. He said having such a beautiful church could serve as an inspiration for Catholics.
Church leaders in Atlanta and Buffalo are backing the novel idea.
In a taped message on the Web site, Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory said, “This is an unusual idea and a step in faith for the parishioners of Mary Our Queen Parish. It is a bold venture; we pray that it is worthy of pursuing for its own sake, to preserve the past and to press on toward a bright future.”
Pat Chivers, communications director for the archdiocese, said the funding for the project is the responsibility of the parish community.
Some historic preservationists in Buffalo have been lukewarm to the idea of what they see as a dismantling of the struggling city’s heritage. But they acknowledge “the reality of the situation.”
Trustees with nonprofit Preservation Buffalo Niagara said opposing the move risks further damage to the historic church since the roof has started to fail and the building is not heated during the winter.
“Losing St. Gerard’s, either through a move to Georgia or through deterioration and eventual demolition, will be a loss of a piece of Buffalo’s heritage,” said a statement from the organization. But the trustees said this idea of the move is so unusual that it is unlikely to be precedent setting for other local churches.
The group recommended the Buffalo Diocese get assurances the finances are in place for the building’s reconstruction in Georgia before giving its final blessing to the move.
At the same time, the Norcross church should tell the church’s architectural and cultural history from the Buffalo era once the church is rebuilt, said a December statement from the nonprofit.
“We trust that the congregation will always welcome St. Gerard’s Buffalo parishioners whenever they manage to visit ‘their church,’” stated the Preservation Buffalo Niagara trustees.
Of course, former parishioners would be welcomed, Father Dye said.
“People from Buffalo will be honored,” he said.