Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Importance of Place to the Proclamation of Beauty

Can a church be moved and still retain its full sense of sacredness and civic prominence? This is the idea that is being explored by Mary Our Queen Catholic Church in Norcross, GA, a suburban Atlanta community. Rather than build a new facility in the pattern of the old ways, this parish is seeking to physically move a recently closed church in Buffalo, NY – St. Gerard’s Catholic Church - piece by piece, fixtures and all, nearly 900 miles to the south. Once relocated, they believe that they can reassemble the 800 seat basilica-style structure designed as a scaled replica of St. Paul Outside the Walls in Rome, and restore it to its former glory except that it will have a growing parish to care for it. 

As its advocates note, “visitors stand in awe of the magnificent structure – startlingly like the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls in Rome, though one-third its size. The exterior of Indiana limestone, an interior of travertine marble and plaster and twelve solid granite columns lining the nave make the church one of the most solidly built (and easy to disassemble) structures of its time.”To duplicate such a structure would cost in excess of $40 million, while it has been estimated that to relocate it would cost roughly $15 million. Calling it “preservation through relocation”, supporters hope that the continued stewardship of this structure in another location is its last, best chance to save such a marvel.

The challenge that this proposal sets forth is perhaps a more elemental one. Today, St. Gerard’s sits on the prominent corner of Bailey Avenue and East Delavan Avenue in the middle of the walkable, urban Fillmore District neighborhood. Unfortunately, the changing demographics of the community led to its ultimate demise. But will its relocation bring a greater honor to this building? Norcross, GA by contrast is a sprawling suburban area with little character and the current site of the receiving parish is in the middle of an office park. For those that accuse New Urbanists of attempting to create “stage-set” versions of true neighborhoods, one can’t help but see that accusation being played out in a far less-dignified location.

What brings dignity to the building is its context. And in St. Gerard’s case the context is one which has a prominent street corner amongst a walkable, urban neighborhood. What little parking they have is behind the buildings, removed from the public realm. Far too often, without the surrounding urbanism like the Fillmore District, most churches built today become much more introverted in their design – patterning themselves after the shopping center and the office building  with inexpensive, often austere exteriors surrounded by large parking fields.

This is not to suggest that the parishioners of Mary Our Queen are not well intentioned. Nor is it to suggest that we must fight to prevent future “preservation through relocation” episodes. Not true. In many cases, unless the job market radically transforms in these older cities and people begin to re-inhabit them as they did a century ago, many St. Gerard’s will have their only future in another location or they will fall to a wrecking ball.

To the casual observer viewing the site from the portal of a Google Earth map, the current location appears to be uninspiring. As a result, I believe that the parish must ask itself whether the final location is dignified enough to receive such a glorious building. Will its new home be prominent enough to proclaim the glory of God to the entire community or only to its own membership? If after spending $15+ million to move and renovate the building would it be better served to spend a little extra to also identify a more appropriate site to proclaim our faith?

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