Immaculate Conception Parish returns to its roots

by MARK CIEMCIOCH
Fri, Jan 3rd 2014 01:00 pm

Founded 135 years ago, Immaculate Conception Church in Wellsville is one of Allegany County's foundations of Catholic life. But years of patch-over work have left the interior of the church looking shabby, so pastor Father Sean DiMaria embarked on a plan to restore Immaculate Conception to its original glory.

"At the very beginning, there was a hesitancy, but now (parishioners) walk in and nobody says anything," Father DiMaria said of the renovations. "They seem to be awestruck by the beauty of the building."

Immaculate Conception Church was founded in 1879, so there is quite a bit of history involved. Father DiMaria said he's heard about the desire to renovate the church since he was assigned there a few years ago, but the parish got serious about it in 2012.

"It really came into play when we wanted to look at the church and make sure it was solid," said Father DiMaria. "There was a sense that for the future of our Catholic faith and Allegany County, we needed to make sure (we could be proud of) our buildings and grounds."

The parish began a capital campaign through Kearns and Associates to raise the funds needed to complete the restoration. The campaign, themed "Inherited from the past, preserving for the future," raised $750,000 from the summer of 2012 to early 2013, even though the original goal was only $600,000.

"In this time frame, there were a lot of generous people out there," said Father DiMaria, noting that parishioners were able to memorialize their donations.

A parish committee was formed to plan the renovation where they agreed to focus on restoring the church to the original look. In addition to the painting, interior restoration work was also done with pews, floors and carpeting, over five months by Swiatek Studios Inc. Owner Brett Swiatek said they spent the first few weeks researching the original look of the church and stripping old paint layers to find the colors.

"We were invited there to develop a new decorative scheme for the church," Swiatek said. "It was painted very poorly the last time."

The entire church was renovated, including repainting the interior walls and design elements like statues, adding protective glazing for stained glass windows, and repairing the roof and exterior trim of the steeple.

"We decided to bring back the original colors of the statues," Father DiMaria said. "In the process, we found certain borders to bring back to the church. There was a different color scheme. We have a beautiful dove skylight that was covered up, and we brought back that too."

The many statues in Immaculate Conception were created by the legendary Deprato firm of Chicago, which impressed Swiatek.

"They were the best in the world," Swiatek said of the sculptors. "They made statues for the Vatican."

Although the interior of the church had only been repainted four times, the most recent work had painted virtually everything - including the walls and statues - with a shade of yellow.

"You couldn't tell what the statuary was actually," Father DiMaria said. "When you walked in, you couldn't tell what was highlighted because it was all yellow. Now things are highlighted."

"(Father DiMaria) was an integral part of the project," Swiatek said. "He always wanted to stay updated and gave us new ideas. It really worked organically. He was very helpful."

Swiatek said the entire process was smooth, especially with help from the parishioners of Immaculate Conception, many of whom brought in pictures to assist the contractors.

"I have to commend the people and parishioners of the Wellsville church," he said. "They really followed the lead of Father Sean DiMaria."

Beyond the interior work, the parish also did some exterior renovations to the building and landscaping. They also moved the parish office away from the rectory to another building, renovating the area to create a space for the three linked parishes in Allegany - Immaculate Conception, SS. Brendan & Jude in Almond-Alfred, and Blessed Sacrament in Andover.

"Slowly but surely we're getting things fixed and repaired," Father DiMaria said. "My main concern is the future of the Catholic church here. That begins with the people and moves to the building so the children and grandchildren will have some place for sacred worship."  

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