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Preserving a church - piece by piece

Imagine putting together a jigsaw puzzle with each piece weighing in at between 10 and 20 pounds.  That’s the task facing masons from DICON, the diocesan construction company, who are doing restoration work at Holy Redeemer Church in Bar Harbor.

The nearly 110-year-old granite church is showing its age.  A tree started growing out of the side of the building, and water has been leaking in between stones, causing plaster on the inside to crumble.

“The rainwater is coming right through, and then, in the wintertime, it freezes and expands, and it’s blowing the stones right out of place,” says Jimmy Costa, the foreman of the project.

The solution: while leaving the interior wall intact, remove all the stones on the outside, clean them, make any necessary repairs, and then put them back up again.

“We’re tearing pretty much this whole wall down and rebuilding it. We have to lay all the stones back in the exact same spots,” says John Bowen, the chief mason.  “They’re all different sizes.”

 The work needs to be exact to ensure that the rebuilt wall will be a perfect fit. To accomplish it, each of the hundreds of stones was numbered and color coded based on the levels of staging.  Photographs were then taken of the stones, so they could be used as guides in the rebuilding process.

“Where it’s a random pattern, it’s hard to keep the numbers exactly in order. You just take a picture, and you look at the picture to know what number stone you’re laying in,” says Bowen. “You figure it out as you go.”

Marks were also made to indicate the exact dimensions of the mortar joints.

“It’s actually marking up every grout line. It’s not only for width but for height. If you make the joints smaller than they were originally, you’re going to be short from the peak when you get to it,” says Costa.

Once all the stones were marked and photographed, they were taken out one by one, cleaned, and placed on pallets.  A single stone could take up to an hour to remove, but Bowen says many slid out easily, confirming the need for the restoration work.

Most of the stones are not damaged, and that is fortunate because only a limited amount of the original granite is still available.  It came from a quarry that was only used for Holy Redeemer Church and one other building.  When DICON restored the bell tower of the church 12 years ago, it worked with the historical society to find the quarry, located in Unionville, and got permission to extract more stone.  However, Bowen says not much remained. They were able to quarry enough to complete the tower work, with a little left over.

Father John Skehan, pastor of the Parish of the Transfiguration of the Lord, says the parish has known for some time that Holy Redeemer needed extensive repairs.  He says consideration was given to demolishing the building, but it was determined that renovations would actually be less expensive than building anew, and people love the current church.

“The vast majority of people in the parish and people in town were very grateful that we’re preserving it – visitors as well, stopping by and saying, ‘What a beautiful church,’” he says. “When they hear that we were considering tearing it down, they say, ‘You’ve got to be kidding? Why would you want to tear this down?’”

The restoration of the stonework is just one of many renovations underway.  The roof of the church was replaced, a new heating system put in, insulation added, and the parish hall is being remodeled and will now be accessible to people with disabilities.

“Our hope is that, by fixing up the parish hall, we can start offering more things down there,” says Father Skehan.

The project also includes tearing down the rectory, which was larger than necessary and in need of repairs, and replacing it with a modular building. It was lifted into place at the end of October.  While smaller than the original rectory, it still includes enough space to accommodate priests who help out at the parish during the busy summer tourist season.

“I wanted to design this so that the priest would be able to live on one floor, knowing that none of us is getting any younger,” says Father Skehan. “There is a master bedroom, master bath, good-sized living room. There is a kitchen and dining area, a small study, and then there is also a second full bath that has a washer-dryer in it. So, a guy could actually live on the first floor.  Then, the second floor is going to have three more bedrooms, and a little sitting room, a little family room.”

Unlike the former rectory, the new one is not connected to the church, which makes the side of the church visible again and opens up some green space.

The parish office was also moved from the rectory to the back of the church.  DICON converted a cry room into offices, a new confessional, and a small closet, all which seamlessly connect to the nave of the church.

“We specialize in historical restoration, keeping things looking as if they’re not new, like they’ve been that way for years,” says Costa. “We’ve had plasterers come and re-plaster to make it look like the original plaster in the church. We matched the trim, matched the wainscoting, matched the chair rail.”

The interior walls of the church, along with the trim around the Stations of the Cross, are also being painted.  The hardwood floor in the sanctuary will be restored. And DICON carpenters, including Paul Foley, Rusty Harmon, and Costa designed and built a new tabernacle.

The price tag for the entire project is over $2 million.  The parish had some money in savings, sold a piece of land, and is holding a capital campaign to pay for it.

The work began in March 2016 and is expected to continue into next summer. While the renovations are extensive, they will ensure that Holy Redeemer is ready to welcome residents and visitors for generations to come.

“The church has been around since 1907. It’s part of the history of the town,” says Father Skehan. “You’re never going to get that type of granite church again, and people love the inside.  It’s simple inside but very pretty.”