And so it is no surprise that the recent renovation of St. Francis de Sales Catholic Church in downtown Paducah ran up a bill of $1.7 million. Of that amount, $1.4 million was spent on the interior.
The general contractor was Ray Black and Sons. Exterior work included repairs to the two bell tower domes, tuck pointing the brickwork, water proofing the foundation, and scraping and painting the frames of the stained glass windows. They had been covered with Plexiglas, which had darkened over the years, giving them a dull look.
These are improvements that, with the exception of the now luminous windows, would be overlooked by the casual observer. The changes to the interior, however, are so strikingly beautiful that one is inclined to gasp “Wow!”
The existing building was the third to be erected on the Sixth and Broadway site. The original was a brick structure erected by parishioners in 1849. A second larger building was constructed in 1870. The present church was completed in 1899 at a cost of $35,000. Multiple changes have been made through the years.
Fr. Brian Roby was been pastor at St. Francis de Sales during the recent planning and renovation process.
“It took two years of research and study and working with consultants,” he recalled. The interior renovation lasted for 11 months. During this time, parishioners worshipped in the adjoining parish hall, which had been completed in 2004.
The vision was to restore the church to its original integrity, with attention to the needs of contemporary Catholic worship. You will not find confession boxes in modern churches, for instance, and priests no longer deliver homilies from elevated pulpits. And because priests now face the congregation while saying Mass, original ornate altars have been replaced by small, table-like altars. But at St. Francis, the old altar, with its statues of Sts. Peter and Paul, remains intact, and because of its beauty and history, parishioners would have it no other way.
Following extensive research, it was decided to restore the decor of the church to its original appearance in 1922.
“Chemicals were used to remove layers of paint,” Fr. Roby said. He explained how paint chips were then analyzed under a microscope in order to determine the exact colors that had been used. The original stenciling was uncovered and replicated in the restoration. This beautiful artwork can be seen on the walls and arched ceilings. Three stages of scaffolding were erected to accommodate the artists.
The Resurrection mural on the sanctuary ceiling behind the altar was painted in 1936 and repainted in later years in brighter, darker colors. Probably the most significant change in the restoration process is the return of the original lighter, softer colors.
At one time, the painted walls were covered with acoustical tile and decorated with canvas portraits of apostles and evangelists. The paintings now hang on the walls of the parish hall corridor.
Confessional boxes in older Catholic churches have been replaced by comfortable, user-friendly Reconciliation Rooms. The original confessional at St. Francis now encloses a Votive Niche as a place for personal prayer. Hanging inside the niche are painted the images of St. Francis de Sales and St. Jane Frances de Chantel, who was mentored by St. Francis and co-founder of the Order of the Visitation.
The restoration of the terrazzo floors (installed after the 1937 flood) is notable. Through the years, they had been waxed and polished seven times. Today the floors look new, having been given a permanent finish.
St. Francis de Sales, like other older Catholic churches, had two small side altars flanking the main altar. They provided a more intimate environment for the Mass celebration. In recent years, the left side altar gave way to the Blessed Sacrament Chapel. Now, the right side worship area has become a music ministry space, with a piano, choir gallery, a pipe organ, and 1044 pipes, some of which date to 1939.
In this beautifully restored area, “The craftsmanship of the woodwork is just phenomenal,” said Fr. Roby proudly.
The church pews appear to be original, but, said Roby, worshippers have been surprised to learn that they are new, having been molded from the originals.
St. Francis de Sales church is a beautiful and remarkable example of authentic historical preservation. But the book is not closed. The lead in the stained glass windows will eventually be replaced and the bell tower domes need further restoration.
“One of the exciting things to be done is to reclaim our vestibule,” Roby said. This area has undergone several changes through the years, the most recent being partitioning parts of the space with paneled wood.
“It is a beautiful, lovely space,” he commented. In the future, the paneled partitions will be removed to make way for a gathering space.
~ ~ ~
Steve Batusic is employed at St. Francis De Sales church as a maintenance worker. He also served on the Capital Campaign Commitee for the church’s renovation project. Because of his skills and his position on the committee, he was one of the very few parishoners who had access to the church on a daily basis during its renovation.
Basically, he said, he was on the scene whenever the contractors needed help.
“I tried to find ways to keep (the project) moving,” he said.
One of his jobs was to clean the dirt and grime from the stained glass windows. Several cleaning methods were tried until he discovered that simple soap and water was the only cleansing agent that worked satisfactorily. He began by using cloths to wipe the windows, but soon found that method did not do the job, so he resorted to using the firmest toothbrushes he could find. The process took about two weeks.
When one admires the new paint and artwork on the tall, vaulted ceilings, one is inclined to wonder how this could have been done. Batusic described the scaffolding that was put in place, some of it with rollers for easy movement. Plywood platforms were placed atop the scaffolding for access to the ceiling.
He observed with interest as layers of paint were painstakingly removed to reveal images that dated from the 1920s.
Not only original artwork but other items of interest were uncovered, such as a copy of the Louisville Courier Journal, dated 1934. When a side altar was moved to make room for the music space, a beautiful brass tabernacle was discovered. It, along with the altar, are now installed in the Blessed Sacrament Chapel.
Not all finds were of historical interest, however.
“They found a few dead animals,” Batusic said.
Of primary concern was to restore the building to its original state, and this was done with patience and extreme care. Nothing was meant to look new, and some parishoners objected to the replacement of the church pews. But at least they could be recycled. Some members purchased them as momentos of the church they loved. Even those beyond repair were saved when Batusic, an experienced woodworker, used the wood to create crosses of various sizes, which were sold at a church picnic.
Even pieces of the original terrazzo were retrieved from a dumpster for worshippers eager for momentoes.