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Diocese sets razing of St. Barbara, cites cost ; Lackawanna church in need of repairs

Officials from the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo plan to have St. Barbara Church in Lackawanna razed because the vacant building has structural problems that would cost as much as $3 million to repair.

Demolition could begin within days or weeks, depending on when asbestos-abatement crews wrap up their work inside the church, which was closed in 2008 as part of the diocese's parish restructuring effort.

It is the first church to face the wrecking ball as a result of the diocese's "Journey in Faith & Grace," a multiyear effort that led to the shutdown of more than 70 worship sites in the diocese's eight counties.

The diocese has been able to sell 55 of those properties for reuse, including Our Lady of Lebanon in Niagara Falls, a sale that closed Monday. Worlds Chocolate Heritage purchased the property and plans a chocolate factory and museum.

But St. Barbara, at 551 Ridge Road, was considered a difficult sell because of its size and location.

The diocese even hosted a special symposium on adaptive reuse possibilities for closed worship sites in the St. Barbara parish center next door -- on the off chance that someone might take a closer look at the church.

Aside from the City of Lackawanna, which examined the possibility of moving City Hall into the structure, the diocese received almost no interest from church groups or developers, said diocesan spokesman Kevin A. Keenan.

"The City of Lackawanna took a very close look at it," Keenan said. "We could not find anybody to buy it."

Lackawanna Mayor Norman L. Polanski Jr. said retrofitting the building for the city's needs simply was too expensive.

"I can't believe we got to this point. It was a beautiful church," he said. "There will be a lot of unhappy, old-time Poles."

The imposing yellow-brick building was erected in 1930 for a parish that consisted of Polish immigrants who worked in the city's steel mills. Constructed as a modern improvisation on the old Romanesque style, it could seat as many as 1,000 people.

The diocese and the city tussled over the value of the church after its closing.

Early on, the diocese was asking $1.2 million for the entire St. Barbara property, which included the parish hall, rectory and large parking lot.

So the city, under a state law that enables municipalities to collect property taxes on vacant churches, assessed the property for the same amount.

The diocese later reduced the price to $750,000 for all the buildings. It ended up selling the parish center to Catholic Charities of Buffalo and the rectory in separate deals.

Diocesan building officials suspected that the church's 154-foot bell tower -- one of the tallest structures in Lackawanna -- had been hit by lightning in late 2009 or early 2010.

They hired an engineering firm to inspect the building last fall, and the company found the upper 62 feet of the bell tower to be unstable and in need of immediate demolition, according to Keenan.

The firm also noted other expensive fixes:

Load-bearing brick arches built with inadequate thrust resistance would need to be removed and replaced, and new reinforced arch-end supports added.

Significant water absorption and retention throughout the walls, windows, doors and chimney of the church.

Frequent masonry restoration due to the use of precast concrete and brick rather than more costly limestone.

Keenan estimated that it would cost $3 million just to stabilize the structure, with no guarantees that a buyer would surface.

e-mail: jtokasz@buffnews.com

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