Storm's Wrath Inspires Rebuilding

Repairs to St. Lucy's Church could total $500,000

Friday, September 18, 1998

By Melanie Gleaves-Hirsch

Architect Jamie Williams slipped a key into a lock on the front door of St. Lucy's Church and gingerly stepped into the vestibule. The scene inside made him catch his breath.

To his left, tons of century-old timbers jutted out in a heap, adding to a dense tangle of roofing material, wood lathe and plaster. The debris filled nearly half the room and it soared one story high, revealing a gaping hole. Through that hole Williams spied a sky the color of cornflowers in a wide-open space where the roof used to be.

In the basement under the architect's feet, a two- to three-ton church bell was lodged somewhere in the debris, out of sight. The bell careened through three stories of wood and plaster when the Labor Day storm ripped St. Lucy's steeple from its perch.

Plastic poinsettia leaves and an inch-thick layer of displaced insulation littered the floor. A long rope once tethered to the church bell dangled in the breeze.

"That's a classic shot right there," Williams said, pointing to the pile of rubble to his left. "It says it all. ... You get in here (inside the church) and you go, 'Oh, boy.' "

Williams, of the Syracuse-based Holmes, King, Kallquist & Associates Architects, worked with a Syracuse-based contractor this week to secure the remainder of the disabled brick steeple. The firm also launched a lengthy cleaning and restoration project that could take up to a year.

The Architect faces hours of painstaking work photographing, measuring and analyzing the 19th-century steeple he salvaged from the wreckage. He will oversee the task of plucking the church bell - the size of an old Volkswagen beetle - from the church's cellar. And he must recreate the steeple without benefit of the original architect's drawings, which were lost in a fire.

As a restoration expert, Williams is accustomed to challenges, and he regards the replacement of St. Lucy's steeple as one of his greatest professional challenges yet: a tricky job, but not an impossible one.

Like the people who worship at the west-side church, Williams sees St. Lucy's steeple as a symbol of strength.

"You've got to fight for it," Williams said of the steeple.

"St. Lucy's is much more than a building at this point. It's a symbol of pride in this community."

Inside St. Lucy's rectory, Sister Margaret Miller agreed the steeple was more than bricks, mortar and wood.

"It's a very powerful symbol, that steeple ... and it's going to be beautiful again," said Miller, a nun who belongs to an order known as the Congregation of St. Joseph.

"It's a beacon of hope to people around here. Maybe some neighborhood people don't go to church, but they belong to St. Lucy's just the same. If they come to St. Lucy's food pantry, they belong to St. Lucy's. If they come to our school, they belong to St. Lucy's. If they visit here at all, they are part of our community."

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Syracuse is still compiling an official estimate of what it will cost to replace the steeple and repair St. Lucy's sanctuary, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Williams made an unofficial calculation that the project could reach up to $500,000.

In the meantime, the non-profit New York Landmarks Conservancy, a historic preservation group based in New York City, this week gave St. Lucy's a $5,000 grant to pay for the services of an engineer who will assess the damage.

St. Lucy's important role in the neighborhood, and the significant damage it suffered moved officials of the group, conservancy president Peg Breen said. "You couldn't hear about the damage and see pictures of it and not do anything," she said.

Founded by Irish immigrants in 1872, St. Lucy's was designed by Syracuse architect Archimedes Russell, who also drew the plans for Crouse College, a towering building that dominates the Syracuse University hill. Russell designed the brick sanctuary in the English gothic style, which features pointed arches and soaring spaces that captured natural light in an era before electric lamps were common.

Williams' architectural firm oversaw a 1990-1991 restoration at St. Lucy's that brightened the sanctuary, removed an old altar rail and made other changes. After the storm hit, Williams said, "I practically camped out on the doorstep" of St. Lucy's rector. He convinced the Rev. James Mathews his firm could put St. Lucy's steeple back together again.

On Thursday, Williams gave a tour of the sanctuary. Several feet from the vestibule, under a gently curling staircase, stood a marble statue of St. Lucy, for whom the church is named. A smaller statue of Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha, a 17th-century Mohawk woman who is being considered for sainthood, took refuge behind it. Both statues were unscathed in the storm, even though they stood just feet from the fallen timbers.

One floor above the vestibule, St. Lucy's balcony lay in ruins. Williams looked down to the vestibule below, through a hole where a wall and floor used to be. He looked up at the sky, where part of the roof once rested. Sparrows flitted near a fragile, badly scarred wall of brick, wood lathes and plaster.

The architect scanned the main sanctuary, which sustained relatively little damage beyond the vestibule. A candle comprising a perpetual light of adoration never extinguished during the storm, Miller said. "That shows that the Lord is with us," the nun said.

In a room off the sanctuary where priests dress and prepare for Mass, the hands of a wall clock stood at 2:20. Lay minister Kevin Frank, who is also St. Lucy's director of faith outreach, cracked a wry smile. That clock had never been right, he said. It was way off the mark when the storm struck.

From the priests' room, Williams led his visitors downstairs to the basement, where he pointed to a bulging wall. "My guess is that the bell is there," he said.

Then the architect yanked open a door in the darkened basement. "It's unbelievable," he said. "You open it up and it's complete rubble. Wow."

William's Architectural firm is launching a massive archaeological dig, minus the soil, so architects can recreate the steeple without the original plans.

On Saturday, workers from the Syracuse Department of Public Works, Niagara Mohawk Power Corp., Bell Atlantic and Time Warner Cable helped Williams launch his salvage operation. Workers used hydraulic lifts on trucks to drag pieces of the fallen steeple to a parking lot across the street from St. Lucy's sanctuary.

Workers Wednesday used a massive crane to remove a dangerously tilting cupola from the roof of St. Lucy's school so pupils could return to classes Monday, said Cummings, the diocesan spokeswoman.

Assisted by Jesuit novices from St. Andrew Hall at Le Moyne College, Miller continues her cleanup chores at the school and church. As she mops and sweeps, the nun dreams of the day the steeple will be restored.

"People in the high-rises will say, 'Oh, sister, I look out my window, and I don't see the steeple anymore. I used to look out at it and say my prayers,' " Miller said.