St. Gregory the Great Parish experienced a bit of an Easter miracle with a major renovation project being completed four days early, just in time for Palm Sunday Mass.
The Williamsville parish used $800,000 from their Upon This Rock collection to purchase new pews, paint the walls, fix the floor, and install heated sidewalks.
"The mainstay of Upon This Rock was to renovate the church. It wasn't to remodel it or change it. It was to fix it up. It's been about 20 years since anything was done in the church," explained Father Leon Biernat, pastor.
Upon This Rock is a strategic initiative designed to immediately impact area parishes as well as reshape the way the Church funds key ministries and programs for the future. The campaign allows each parish to keep 35 percent of money raised towards a $100 million goal. St. Greg's raised $4,742,000 through UTR.
When the UTR Campaign began, Father Biernat outlined his hope for the renovations. Original plans called for the pews to be refinished, but he could not find anyone local who would take on the job. Sending them to New York City to the company that did Manhattan's St. Patrick Cathedral proved too costly. It made more sense to buy new pews.
"We had to replace the kneelers, so we did replace the kneelers. This way the benches and the kneelers would now be integral to each other; both brand new, instead of retrofitting brand new kneelers to an old bench," Father Biernat said.
When the new pews came in, the floor plan was adjusted to have all the pews face the altar. When the church was built in 1968, all the pews faced directly forward. So, if you sat on the left or right of the altar, you faced a wall. Msgr. Rupert Wright first tried to set them in the round 20 years ago.
"We had a church engineer, somebody who does this for a living, actually configure the benches," Father Biernat said. "Now, all the benches, no matter where you are sitting, your eyes are focused on the altar."
The terrazzo tile floor was restored. There were some substantial cracks and a lot of pitting in the tile that was cleaned, repaired and restored. The church interior was painted blue and gold, more colorful that the plain white of the past. New flooring and carpeting was laid in the balcony.
"It got to be, if we're going to do the pews, let's do the floor. If we're going to do that, let's do the painting. Things got to be so big, that we brought in a general contractor (Picone Construction)," explained Joe Couche, chair of the parish Buildings & Grounds Committee, which oversaw the project.
Behind the altar is a relief sculpture of Jesus ascending created by a Franciscan artist 20 years ago. "They painted the relief part but they also painted the flat part of the wall some geometric shapes," said Couche. "We left the relief figures as they were 20 years ago, but we painted the flat part of the wall a single pale yellow color. We wanted to recognize the legacy of what that Franciscan did and keep that there because it kind of stands out better that way."
The rest of the walls are a light blue, which some have said makes the church warmer than the old stark white walls.
The only thing still being worked on are the heated sidewalks in front of the church. The typical Buffalo weather has prevented to cement from being poured.
The parish installed the same sidewalks, with a hose in the cement that runs hot water under the snow, in front of the school two years ago.
"One it's for safety, because it's melting the snow and the ice," Father Biernat explained. "The way it's been working at the school has been great. It's not only melting it, it's evaporating it. It's cutting down on the use of the salt and the ice melt, which is also causing the pitting in the terrazzo floor. That's why we're doing it in front of the church."
Some have questioned if the parish's money could have gone to a better cause. Father Biernat admits this work did not need to be done now, but it would have to be done eventually.
"Just like in taking care of your home, you've got to keep it up," he said. "Those floors were cracking. Could we go another five years without repairing them? Yes. The cracks would have gotten longer and eventually we would have had a problem. The paint, 20 years is not a bad run. I didn't think the church looked bad, but when they started painting I could see how dirty the walls were."
Asbestos removal and removing the old boiler would have to be done some day, as would repair of the pillars that support the canopy roof over the walkway. By doing the parish hopes to avoid an emergency in the future.
And he insists there has been no complaints about the finished product.
"I believe we are near the end of recorded time, because I have not had one complaint about the way the church looks. Not one. Absolutely. I don't think I've ever had a project where I didn't get one complaint," he said.
One students, after a school Mass commented on the new kneelers, "I feel like it was kneeling on a cloud in heaven."