Reclamation and reuse with respect

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Closing a parish church requires more than merely turning off the lights and locking the doors.

If it were as simple as that, the former church of Visitation-St. Ann Parish would have been shuttered nine weeks ago, after the farewell Mass on July 31.

Instead, the Archdiocese of St. Louis takes great care to remove and preserve significant religious artifacts from decommissioned churches, items that have been used in worship over many, many years — in the case of Visitation-St. Ann, for more than 100.

This is in accordance with the Code of Canon Law: "(S)acred objects, which are designated for divine worship by dedication or blessing, are to be treated reverently and are not to be employed for profane or inappropriate use even if they are owned by private persons" (Canon 1171).

In other words, blessed or sacred items such as relics, altars, stations or paintings shouldn't be used as decorations in private homes or businesses. Or worse, these items should never go into the trash.

So, for the past two months, crews have been meticulously deconstructing and removing religious items from Visitation-St. Ann, working with the precision and attention-to-detail of the craftsman and artisans who installed them and built the church in the early 1900s.

Workers pack the items in crush-proof crates, which are sent to the archdiocesan Reclamation Center at Blessed John XXIII Center in Affton. The items then are stored for future use, either in the St. Louis area or elsewhere. Priests, deacons, chaplains, religious communities or Catholic schools can reclaim items for reuse in their parishes, schools or communities.

Directed by Father Nicholas Smith, the Office of Worship oversees the Reclamation Center.

"We take out whatever Father Smith wants to take to Reclamation, and we try to find new homes for them, in the archdiocese or other dioceses," said Randy Rathert, director of the archdiocesan building and real estate office.

By preserving the religious artifacts for future use, the archdiocese honors the former members of closed parishes, being good stewards of their gifts. For that reason, deconstruction is a slow, deliberate and meticulous process, with workers being careful to preserve the items and to not damage them in any way.

Removing items

At Visitation-St. Ann, the first thing to be removed was the Shrine of St. Ann, which came through the merger with St. Ann Parish in 1992. It was soon relocated and dedicated in its new home, St. Nicholas Parish in downtown.

Then, the Stations of the Cross with their 3D figurines were taken down from the side walls, packed and shipped to Reclamation for safe keeping. According to Dave Felling of Felling Contracting, Inc., the stations were built using "real sophisticated molds. They're impressive."

From there, workers went to the beautiful stained-glass windows, removing them one pane at a time. The crews removing the windows are from the company that installed them — Emil Frei & Associates.

Though each stained-glass window appears to be one gigantic window, it actually is many smaller windows, multiple sections in the lower part and also in the upper portion. In addition, crews carefully removed the wooden, arched frames in which the glass fit; duplicating them today would be extremely difficult, time consuming and costly.

On a recent morning, James Hannegan worked alone in the former church building. The side pews had been moved away from the outer walls and pushed toward the center pews, giving workers access to the stations and the stained-glass windows.

Removing a window wasn't his first task, though. Hannegan first custom-built the crates, cutting 4' by 8' sheets of plywood to size and shape for the panes; he also cut Styrofoam for between the panes, so they would safely fit side by side inside the crates

The condition of the stained-glass windows varied.

"Some of them are stable, some are not so stable; it really depends on the window," he said. "Most of them are OK."

He MacGyvered the unstable ones.

"We just cover them with duct tape," he said.

The stained-glass windows will be restored before installation in their new home.

Over the next few weeks, the pews will be removed for storage; likewise, the pews will be refinished once a new home is found. Then, the intricate marble altar will be removed, slowly and carefully. The marble covers a concrete base built to handle the weight; a single marble slab weighs as much as 800 pounds. Copper pins help keep the marble attached.

The buildings of Visitation-St. Ann Parish — the former church, attached rectory and school — have been on the market since August. With stained-glass windows replaced by slightly tinted glass, the inside of the former church building is bathed in natural light.The church has wooden floors, a striking dark-wooded ceiling and a new roof on the exterior. The new owner will need to repair the plaster inside, do tuck pointing outside and rehab the rectory, which has new windows, but overall, "It's a solid structure," Rathert said.

The church cornerstone was laid in 1909, 28 years after Our Lady of the Visitation Parish's founding. Visitation Parish played a vital role in integration, in 1946 becoming the first parish in the archdiocese to integrate its school. This was a year before Cardinal Joseph E. Ritter did the same with all Catholic schools in the archdiocese and eight before the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court case made it the law of the land.

Beyond the church's historical significance, it was first and foremost a house of worship, serving whites and blacks then welcoming parishioners in mergers with Holy Ghost (1961) and St. Ann (1992).

Over the years, congregations prayed in the pews, filled the sanctuary with hymns and witnessed the divine mystery of the Eucharist at countless Sunday, Holy Day and daily Masses. Parishioners celebrated weddings then new life at the marble baptismal fount. They attended first Communions, confirmations, graduations, penance services and stations. Parishioners also mourned at funerals before, finally, the former parishioners, families and friends joined them to say goodbye at one final Mass and to celebrate Visitation/St. Ann's legacy.

Respecting history

Each closed parish has a history to be respected as it transitions to future use. In archdiocese history, 112 parishes have closed. About 20 former parishes have become new, merged parishes or chapels. The majority of the rest became churches of other denominations or schools, and some had to be razed because decay rendered them unusable or other uses for land awaited. Busch Stadium, interstate highways and airport expansion are examples.

Several former parish churches have been converted to other uses, including a theatre, community center and an advertising firm. Cfx, an advertising firm, occupies the former Holy Family Church in south St. Louis. Marian Middle School has the the parish's former school building.

Cfx bought the former church in 2006 soon after it went on the market, then spent six months planning renovations and another year executing them. The re-purposing incorporates modern aesthetics with reverence to the building's history. Except for fresh coats of paint, the walls were untouched, and the ceiling remains the same as it ever was, with paintings at either end of the sanctuary. Red marble still covers the back walls, and the organ in the choir loft still plays.

Mindful of the building's history, the company invited a Catholic priest to bless the space after renovations.

"No matter what your religious affiliation, you can't deny the amount of prayers, baptisms, weddings and funerals that happened in this space," Cfx owner Chris Frank said. "We're honored to own this property. ... We've always treated it with that respect." 

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