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Our Lady of Victory renovations end in time for Christmas

For thousands of Catholic families, Christmas will proceed as usual at one of the area’s most popular holiday destinations.

The grand interior of Our Lady of Victory Basilica in Lackawanna lost a bit of its luster during a recent renovation project. Construction closed off more than half of the church for 14 weeks and had worshippers staring at a backdrop of steel scaffolding, rather than the ornate marble altar, stained glass and other ecclesiastical accoutrements for which the basilica is so well known.

But those renovations have wrapped up just in time for the busiest season of the year at the basilica, where upward of 7,500 people are expected to fill the pews at six Masses on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.

“For Christmas, it’s everybody’s parish. They all come here,” said Monsignor Paul J.E. Burkard, Our Lady of Victory Parish pastor.

No one was more relieved than Burkard when 10 stories of scaffolding finally came down on Dec. 15 – three days earlier than contractors had vowed to finish the project. Crews then spent two days thoroughly cleaning the basilica of construction dust and debris.

Parish staff and volunteers have been busy over the past several days adding holiday decorative touches. A large manger scene, complete with hay strewn about, was set up at a side altar at the west wall of the basilica. More than 130 poinsettias were delivered Tuesday morning and set in place in the evening, along with two dozen wreaths and more than a dozen Christmas trees.

The basilica needed major repairs to its upper dome, where moisture infiltration caused significant plaster damage. The dome’s 16 stained-glass windows were protected by plexiglass storm windows that had been installed about 50 years ago to replace the dome’s original glass storms.

As it turns out, while plexiglass is more durable than natural glass, but it also does not “breathe” in the same way. So, moisture trapped between the stained glass and the plexiglass seeped into the plaster over the years. During the project, each of the 16 “Adoring Angels” stained-glass windows was removed and restored by McHugh Art Studios. Five additional firms were involved in other aspects of the project, which cost more than $500,000.

To reach the windows, crews had to construct scaffolding that stretched across the width of the basilica and nearly 100 feet high. The basilica typically has pew seating for 1,200 people. The massive scaffolding, which took 10 days to build, eliminated more than half of it.

For weeks, Burkard preached from a small, temporary altar in the middle of the basilica. The new vantage point allowed him to see the last few rows of pews during Mass for the first time. “The first weekend, I said, ‘It’s really nice to be back here with you. I can finally see what you’re doing back here,’ ” he joked. But the changes also made for some cramped quarters in the normally airy basilica.

“Everybody had somebody next to them,” said John Twist, a longtime parishioner who serves on the Parish Council. “People weren’t thinking how majestic it was then.”

Burkard and Twist said that attendance dipped a little bit, but for the most part, parishioners hung in there week after week.

“People tolerated it without too much grumbling,” Twist said.

It wasn’t all smooth sailing, though. The massive snowstorm in November hammered Lackawanna, where a few prayers were in order to Father Nelson Baker, the candidate for sainthood who led the building of the basilica in the 1920s . The city’s driving ban prevented workers from getting to the basilica for four days. Burkard, who is normally even-keeled, acknowledged he became a tad worried during those long days of inactivity inside the church – and what they might mean for Christmas this year.

“I was trying to make mental plans as to what we would do for Christmas if they weren’t out of here,” he said.

Another delay involved the parish’s inability to find professional glaziers to properly fit the new storm window glass. “They were all working on HarborCenter,” said Burkard, noting the rush to finish the huge twin-rink hockey facility that opened in October in downtown Buffalo. “That delayed us a lot.”

In the end, Burkard and OLV parishioners had little to worry about.

Parishioners are overjoyed to get back full use of their beloved basilica. Mary Anne Jackson said she felt like she was out in the wilderness with the scaffolding obscuring her view of so much religious art and symbolism.

“You don’t notice it until it’s taken away from you,” Jackson said. “The first thing I said when the scaffolding came down is, ‘It’s so nice to be back home.’ ” Most parishioners celebrated their first Mass inside the scaffold-less sanctuary this past weekend.

Now, the basilica is ready to open the doors wide for everyone to see. The parish’s annual children’s holiday liturgy will be celebrated at 4 p.m. Wednesday. Four hundred chairs have been added to aisles and other spaces, but not everyone is likely to get a seat – even with the scaffolding gone now. It’s Christmas time at the basilica.

“That Mass will be packed to the gills,” Burkard said.