Scaffolding a common sign at older churches in city

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Sunday, May 20, 2012

Scaffolding a common sign at older churches in city

Many of the churches in the Archdiocese of Chicago — especially the older ones, built in times when more ornate architecture was in vogue — have beautiful ceilings that invite the faithful to look heavenward as they pray.
Construction continues at St. Stanislaus Kostka Church, 1351 W. Evergreen. The overall cost of repair and restoration to the church is estimated to be 4.4 million. The repair of the trusses, one of the major repairs, is expected to be completed by June or July of 2012. (Karen Callaway / Catholic New World)
A sign "Save The" on the outside of St. Mary of the Angels Church,1850 North Hermitage, can be seen from the Kennedy Expressway in Chicago. The parish hopes to gain attention from drivers stuck in traffic and onlookers to raise money for its $3 million restoration project on their century-old Renaissance-style church. (Karen Callaway / Catholic New World)
Fr. Michael Shanahan, pastor, celebrates Mass among scaffolding which is part of a restoration project at Our Lady of Lourdes Parish on July 18. (Karen Callaway / Catholic New World)
Scaffolding can be seen over the dome from across the street of Our Lady of Lourdes Church, 4640 N Ashland. (Karen Callaway / Catholic New World)

Many of the churches in the Archdiocese of Chicago — especially the older ones, built in times when more ornate architecture was in vogue — have beautiful ceilings that invite the faithful to look heavenward as they pray.

But the faithful in some churches are looking up and seeing danger above, as older churches, especially but not exclusively those with domes, are coping with the threat of falling debris.

The threat became real in February 2008, when a decorative piece of wood fell from the ceiling at Holy Name Cathedral, and further investigation showed that the wooden trusses holding up the roof had been compromised. The cathedral was closed for months for repairs.

Nothing had fallen from the ceiling at St. Stanislaus Kostka Church — yet. St. Stanislaus Kostka, at Noble Street and Evergreen Avenue, was designed by Patrick Keely, who designed Holy Name Cathedral, and uses the same wooden truss system to support the roof. After the problem at the cathedral, officials from the archdiocese came to the parish and told them that they had discovered the same problem in several Keely-designed churches once they were about 100 years old, and St. Stanislaus Kostka was due, said Dina Garcia, a member of the parish’s restoration committee.

“It seems that after 100-some years, there just wasn’t the support for those trusses,” Garcia said. “It had to be done eventually.”

The parish also discovered that the floor had to be reinforced and the ceiling replaced, and since all the other work was being done, it seemed a good opportunity to repaint, change the configuration of the altar and clean and restore the windows.

All told, the project is expected to cost $4.4 million, with $2.1 million of that paying for repairs to the roof support system, Garcia said.

Fixing the domes

At St. Stanislaus Kostka, the scaffolding is inside the church. At Our Lady of Mercy Parish, 4432 N. Troy, passers-by have seen the scaffolding on the outside of the church for more than a year. The dome, said pastor Father Joseph Tito, “has been leaking for 35 of its 50 years.” Tito hopes the project will be complete by the end of the summer.

The gold-colored dome has become a bit of a historic landmark in the parish’s Albany Park neighborhood, but that didn’t stop the parish’s pastor emeritus, Father Don Headley, from advising Tito to “blow it up” when he first arrived.

Domes, Tito has come to learn, have problems that are costly to fix by their very nature. They’re round — both horizontally and vertically — and to repair them, you have to put up scaffolding, and lots of it. The scaffolding alone at Our Lady of Mercy cost about $50,000.

The lack of straight lines and square corners makes it difficult to get truly watertight seals, lead ing to problems with leakage. Shortly before Tito arrived at the parish 10 years ago, the parish spent quite a bit of money from the Millennium Campaign — an archdiocese- wide capital campaign — to fix it, but apparently there wasn’t enough money to do the job right, because it started leaking again.

This time, the parish stripped the dome down to its concrete base and swathed it in a thick, rubbery coat of sprayed-on waterproofing. It will be clad in gold-colored stainless steel instead of gold-painted terra cotta tiles, which tend to need more maintenance, Tito said.

It will cost about $1 million, money that the parish had saved in hopes of buying some property on neighboring Kedzie Avenue for a youth center. When the parish started saving the money, the property was too expensive; now it has come down in cost, but the money is gone to pay for repairs to the dome.

Peeling ceiling

Two years ago, scaffolding climbed the walls at Our Lady of Lourdes Parish, 4640 N. Ashland Ave. There, the need for work became apparent when the plaster ceiling inside the dome started to peel away visibly, making engineers fear that debris could fall on people below, said business manager Jim Masini. Although the roof was replaced in 2005, the dome had not been touched because it cost too much.

The parish was able to get insurance to cover some of the repair to the water-damaged interior, but wanted to repair the outside first to prevent the problem from happening again.

“Our first view of the project was that we would do only the necessary waterproofing repairs to the roof structure to give us enough confidence to finish the interior restoration,” Masini wrote in an email interview. “Once access was achieved to the cupola at the top of our dome, it became apparent that ‘repairs’ alone would not be sufficient; instead the 100-year old copper used to flash our cupola and roofing was worn out and needed to be replaced. The best way to address the problem turned out to be a complete replacement of the roof and converting from clay tile to copper tile.”

As seems to be the case with older buildings. more work was discovered and added an additional $50,000 to the project.

All told, the project cost more than $1.8 million, with $200,000 covered by insurance and a $430,000 grant from the archdiocese, he said. The parish used up everything it had saved from previous capital campaigns and held fundraisers, ending up with a debt of $640,201. It’s hoping to retire that through the Annual Catholic Appeal’s debt reduction program.

Perhaps the mother of all dome projects was the restoration of the dome at St. Mary of the Angels Church, 1850 N. Hermitage Ave. The scaffolding that surrounded the large dome carried a huge banner urging people to “Save the Dome” last summer. The banner was visible to everybody driving by on the Kennedy Expressway.

The parish started the project when plaster began falling from the dome, said business manager Gary Bilinovich. The church was renovated in the early 1990s after parishioners rallied to get it reopened, under the auspices of the Prelature of Opus Dei, after it was closed in 1988. But apparently, not everything was done correctly, and water continued to infiltrate the dome.

An engineer who rappelled down the outside of the dome — which tops out at 19 stories high — found “a number of things that should have been taken care of way back when,” Bilinovich said.

So the church embarked on a two-year project that included installing waterproofing around the shell of the dome before replacing the terra cotta ribs and tiles that form its surface. Once the project started, the church also decided to redo the cupola on top of the dome that had been clad in fiberglass as part of the early 1990s renovation.

They got a good price from the contractor but still, the project cost $2.1 million — and that’s just for the exterior work. “The cost, it was just a shock to see what it was,” he said. Still, the parish has raised $1.8 million, through donations, the sale of some stock and other savings, and is participating in the Annual Catholic Appeal’s debt reduction program to pay off the rest.

The parish hasn’t started restoring the damaged plaster inside the dome yet. People in the sanctuary are protected from falling debris by a huge net suspended below the ceiling after a golf-ball sized piece of plaster fell. The plan is to do that portion of the project starting in Lent 2013.