Posted August 21, 2006

Loving hands revive Old St. Patrick's | A broken organ, missing altar and an
antiquated heating system are challenges of restoration.

The Kansas City Star

Photography by Susan Pfannmuller
Special to The Kansas City Star

The list is long: Fire, storms, urban renewal, interstate construction - not to mention the ravages of time.

All have threatened Old St. Patrick's Church at 806 Cherry St. It even lost its parish when the downtown area, which it had served since 1875, was taken over by office buildings.

The Roman Catholic diocese had shuttered the church by 1959, after which it was used only occasionally. Now the building, thought to be the oldest church in the city limits of Kansas City, is on track to reopen next year.

The sanctuary will again hear the solemn and majestic tones of the Latin Mass, which is the focus of a group of worshippers that currently meets at Our Lady of Sorrows Catholic Church, 2552 Gillham Road. Earlier this year, about 90 families took on the renovation of Old St. Patrick's Church for a permanent home. It's now Old St. Patrick Roman Catholic Oratory.

When the prospect of moving to an old building that would require lots of work was mentioned, some in the Latin Mass congregation were less than enthusiastic.

No air conditioning. No bathroom anywhere near the sanctuary. The dysfunctional heating system consisted of steam-filled pipes running under the pews. The main altar was gone. The organ didn't work. The building needed structural repairs. And those pews were old. Really old.

A guide on a public tour of downtown churches in July 2003 pointed to the scars on the ends of the pews where gates were once attached. Decades ago, church members who didn't pay their pew tax were not allowed to sit.

Those who did sit wore holes in the floor with their shoes and, possibly, spurs. Holes were patched with wood, metal or rags. The building was a time capsule.

Irish families settling in Kansas City after the Civil War were the founding force behind St. Patrick's Church - the designation "old" was added in January 1958 when a St. Patrick's was built in Clay County. Although the Roman Catholic Church eventually moved away from Latin as the language of the Mass, some Catholics in the Kansas City area like the traditional way of doing things.

The group at Our Lady of Sorrows has been meeting there since 1989. Another group meets in Kansas City, Kan., at Blessed Sacrament Church - the St. Philippine Duchesne Latin Mass Community. Old St. Patrick's was designated for the Latin Mass community at Sorrows by Bishop Robert W. Finn in 2005. An oratory has no geographical boundaries as a parish does.

As the renovation project came together, the community became convinced, said Joe Farris, a member of the oratory.

"I believe it will be the finest church in the diocese when it's finished," he said. "We have new people on the roster each month. We're confident that once we get down there (into Old St. Patrick's), we'll see that number grow even more."

The church has been measured, checked and tested. A structural engineer looked at the foundation, walls and brickwork. The Italianate building was declared worth saving.

Some churches have been less fortunate. In East Boston, St. Mary Star of the Sea closed. Altars and statues - some made of Carrara marble from Italy - needed a new home.

"We rescued them from being destroyed," said the Rev. Bradley Offutt, chancellor of the Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph.

Rather than have the fixtures and statues desecrated by secular use, they would have been shattered. The items are being stored in Kansas City.

The dedicated but humble congregation that built St. Patrick's Church in 1875 hadn't anticipated marble fixtures. The renovation project's architect, Craig Deister, knew the existing floor and its supports wouldn't hold them. So structural improvements were added to the project's schedule.

Project volunteers have learned to improvise. The space for plumbing that will make a new bathroom possible is being dug by hand. Paul Villotti, an engineer and a member of the oratory from Garden City, Mo., described a process using shovels, wheelbarrows and elbow grease. But it will be worth it, he said.

Farris, who lives in Platte County, said: "I have a great appreciation for the ancient liturgy of the church and the reverence that goes along with that."

Farris' faith led him to help with fundraising for the renovation of the Old St. Patrick's. The project has about $800,000 in donations, existing funds and the income the church gets from the lease on a parking lot.

That was phase one - enough money to get the building "to the point where we can start using it," Farris said. More is needed.

Farris and Offutt hope anyone interested in preserving the old church building will donate. Offutt said more than $1 million will be needed before the project is complete.

On the list of donors is the J.E. Dunn Foundation, of the same family name that is on construction sites all over Kansas City. Diocese records indicate John Ernest Dunn was baptized at St. Patrick's Church in 1893. Offutt said other well-known Kansas City families also have roots in the church.

In a worship book, a notation reads: "Each church has a guardian angel."

The angel at Old St. Patrick's is persistent.

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