When a shrinking congregation forced the century-old St. Gerard’s Church to shut its doors in 2008, its fate was uncertain. The 800-seat church had been a pride of its neighborhood in East Buffalo, NY, boasting stained-glass windows, marble columns, and a basilica modeled after St. Paul’s in Rome. But its roof was collapsing and the parish could no longer justify maintaining it for a congregation that had dwindled from several thousand families in the 1970s to a mere hundred.
Meanwhile, in Norcross, a burgeoning suburb of Atlanta, the Mary Our Queen parish was looking to build a new home for its 3,000-and-counting members. Although parish leaders had drafted a preliminary design with an architect, they went to visit St. Gerard’s after hearing of its closing. “They were awestruck at how much it looked like their design,” said Pat Chivers, spokesperson for the Atlanta diocese.
The two groups negotiated an agreement: The church would be moved 900 miles from Buffalo to Norcross, in what Mary Our Queen touts as “preservation by relocation.” As the church is dismantled, every brick will be numbered and catalogued, and the dismantling process will be filmed to aid in its reconstruction. Contractors will take moldings of any pieces that cannot be easily removed, such as the plaster on the walls and ceiling, and re-cast them in Norcross.
So far, Mary Our Queen has raised $3 million toward the total $15 million required for the move. “But it’s building momentum,” Chivers said. Support is strong in the Atlanta area, as well as in Buffalo, especially among former parishioners who like the idea of the building continuing to operate as a Catholic church.
Local preservation groups would prefer to see the church stay in Buffalo, but have officially stated their intent not to oppose the move. The Buffalo City Council, however, has been explicit in its disapproval of the plan. “[Norcross] should develop their own vernacular architecture there, they shouldn’t be poaching ours,” said Buffalo City Council President David A. Franczyk.
Even if the move occurs as planned, the council need not worry about St. Gerard’s sparking a trend, according to Kevin Keenan, spokesperson for the Buffalo diocese. The church was constructed from large pieces of Indiana limestone, which are easier to take apart and reassemble, making it uniquely suited to a relocation. “This isn’t something we anticipate we will ever do again,” Keenan said.