By Celine Klosterman
MOUNT PLEASANT — In light of the expense of maintaining St. Alphonsus Parish’s former church, the parish council has voted to remove the 149-year-old building.
Council members voted 11-1 on March 22 to remove the structure, which has numerous problems including mold; water intrusion; an outdated, expensive heating system and lack of insulation; and exterior deterioration, said John Pomberg, parish council president.
No timeline has been set for demolition. Parishioners are currently discussing what items from the building can and will be saved, Pomberg said.
The church closed in 2005. That year St. Alphonsus dedicated a new church, which is attached to the parish complex that includes the former place of worship. Pomberg said Catholics had continued to use rooms in the older building for some meetings and activities, but about two years ago the parish stopped heating and cooling the former church to save money.
One winter’s heating bill for the building was 40 percent of the cost of heating the parish’s entire facility, including St. Alphonsus Church and Manning Hall, said Brian Roth, finance council president. “That money was going to a building that, for the most part, we were no longer using.”
St. Alphonsus shut off utilities amid a strategic planning process the parish began in 2009. That process spurred parishioners to attend to the former church’s future, Pomberg said.
“It was like the 800-pound gorilla in the room. Everyone knows it’s there, but no one wants to address it … In my mind the issue was, ‘Do we deal with this now, or pass it down the line?’ It’d be better for everyone concerned for us to deal with it.”
In a 2010 parish survey, 64 percent of 200 respondents favored removing the building. The same percentage of parishioners voted no to spending money on remodeling the structure.
“We need to go forward, but we can take the memories from that wonderful church,” said Dorothy McCormick, a parishioner since 1941. She believes the building should be torn down, but suggested finding uses for salvageable items from it in St. Alphonsus’ newer facilities.
But 45-year parishioner Larry Maher believes that the Gothic Revival-style building, which Irish immigrants helped build during the Civil War, has historical value that makes the entire structure worth saving.
“What better way to affirm the vitality and growth of a parish than to have, on our grounds, the original structure alongside the new worship center?” he and other Catholics wrote in a letter to the parish.
Maher said that bids parishioners sought to remediate mold, update the building’s heating system, relieve water intrusion and eliminate bats in the building’s attic totaled $44,000. That cost is less than the most recent estimates St. Alphonsus has for demolishing the church — $100,000 to $150,000.
St. Alphonsus didn’t seek bids on a full restoration of the former church. “We proposed having an architectural firm come in and advise us on the possibility of restoring the building, but the money was never approved to do that,” Maher said.
Pomberg said he understands some parishioners’ desire to preserve the former church. “But a building that age, which was built to be a church and nothing else, is difficult to transform into something usable.”
Even if the building were renovated, the parish couldn’t rent it out or sell it because it’s on the same grounds as the existing church, Roth said. He acknowledged spot repairs could make the older building usable in the short term, but said parish leaders are looking at St. Alphonsus’ long-term future.
Those leaders spent much time listening to parishioners and tried to do what the people of St. Alphonsus asked, said Father Joseph Phung van Phung, pastor. “There are a lot of emotions related to this decision. However, we hope that as we move forward with the process, the parish will be better and stronger.”