Catholics have been moving south from Western New York for decades. A vacant church on Buffalo's East Side soon might join them.
A parish in the Archdiocese of Atlanta wants to buy St. Gerard Church at Bailey and East Delavan avenues, dismantle the basilica-style structure and ship it to Norcross, Ga., where it would be reassembled.
Officials of the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo expressed optimism about the unusual plan, which they call "preservation by relocation." They say moving the grand church, which was built in 1911, will allow it to be used as intended and prevent it from falling into disrepair.
"It's a building where the prospects of sale are nonexistent, and you have the ability to reuse it as a Catholic church. This is an opportunity," said Kevin A. Keenan, diocesan spokesman who has been meeting with city officials.
Dismantling and shipping the 2,000-pound Indiana limestone blocks from the exterior, altars, doors, interior columns, pews, windows and steel beams would cost $3 million, estimated the Rev. David M. Dye, administrator of Mary Our Queen parish in Norcross, about 20 miles northeast of downtown Atlanta.
Green space and a marker would be left at the church site, diocesan officials said.
Dye said he did not yet know the price tag for reconstruction. A computer analysis of St. Gerard would help determine that.
The Norcross parish of about 700 families was formed in 1994 and has been worshipping in temporary space. It is in the midst of a multimillion-dollar building campaign and had an architectural design for a new church drawn up before Dye began looking for vacant churches in dioceses in the Northeast.
The priest visited the Archdiocese of Boston and discussed options with representatives from the Diocese of Allentown in Pennsylvania before turning his attention to Buffalo and St. Gerard.
The Buffalo church "matches the design we've already done," he said. "It looks exactly like what the architect has drawn."
But some preservationists are appalled by the proposal and have initiated efforts to designate St. Gerard a historic landmark and prevent it from being moved.
"This is not preservation by any stretch of the imagination," said Timothy A. Tielman, executive director of the Campaign for Greater Buffalo History, Architecture & Culture and a member of the Buffalo Preservation Board.
No immediate reuse for the church "doesn't mean you just pack it in a box and let someone take it. It's disturbing," he added. "It is analogous to the situations that European countries and Egypt faced in the early 20th century, when so much of their legacy was literally packed up and shipped away to other parts of Europe and the United States."
Those countries now have laws prohibiting the movement of significant pieces of a community's cultural heritage.
Other members of the preservation board, which heard Keenan's presentation of the proposal this week, could not be reached to comment.
Wendy Nicholas, director of the northeast regional office of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, said she was unaware of such a project involving a church of St. Gerard's size and grandeur.
"What they're proposing is unprecedented," she said. "I've never heard of anything like this."
Following years of declining membership, St. Gerard closed in January, and the parish merged with Blessed Trinity on Leroy Avenue.
The diocese has received no offers for the church, which needs a new boiler, roof repairs and leading for its stained-glass windows -- which would total hundreds of thousands of dollars, Keenan said.
"Do we preserve a building for nothing or are we going to preserve a building for a worship community?" asked the Rev. Francis X. Mazur, former pastor of St. Gerard, who supports moving the church.
Those opposing the idea "need to come up with a plan," he said. "Give me an alternate plan, and I'm willing to listen to it."
While the building is unlikely to be re-adapted right away, "maybe the future has some opportunity" if it is properly secured and kept weather-tight, Nicholas said.
The real estate market was saturated with churches -- the diocese has closed 18 in the city alone. But over time, other uses will present themselves and the diocese needs to "work a bit harder," Tielman said.
"How many other buildings will be harvested like this?" he asked. "Once the gates are open, it becomes permissible to take down buildings."
Common Council Majority Leader Richard A. Fontana, who represents the Lovejoy District where St. Gerard is located, said he initially was shocked by the plan but would support it as long as the Georgia parish has adequate funds and rebuilds it completely.
"I'd rather have it in use than not in use," he said. "There's no way to keep it here in good repair."
Dorothy Eckl, a former parish trustee, said she also favored the move.
"When the church closed, I think it was one of the saddest days of my life," she said. "Relocating it, I think, would be a fabulous idea. I would rather have it here of course. But it did need a lot of repairs and replacements inside, and it would be worse for it to just sit there."
Modeled after St. Paul's Outside the Walls, one of four major basilicas in Catholicism and the second-largest church in Rome, St. Gerard features 12 granite columns, ornamental coffered ceilings and a dome in the apse with a fresco painting of the coronation of Mary as Queen of Heaven.
Dye "was taken aback by" the fresco, said Mazur, who showed the church to the Georgia priest in August.
Other area Catholic churches are unlikely to take a similar path, Keenan said.
"We don't anticipate coming back to them a year from now and saying, 'Guess what? We've [got] another one.' This is unique," he said.
For all of the closings in the Northeast, some dioceses in the south hardly can keep up with the growth of the Catholic faith in traditionally Bible-belt territory.
"We can't open Catholic churches it seems fast enough. They're predicting 30 to 40 new parishes here in the next 25 years," Dye said.