For years, parishioners at one of the largest and most visible historic churches in New Orleans have had to contend with the downside of worshiping in a 130-year-old building: flakes of plaster falling from the ceiling, visibly worn and broken masonry, and a luster partially dimmed by old lighting and faded paint.
And that’s not even considering decades of water damage and other problems less apparent to most worshipers.
All that’s set to change over the coming months, thanks to a nearly $7 million restoration of St. Stephen Catholic Church, whose 200-foot-tall spire is visible from much of Uptown New Orleans.
The work is the first major restoration since the church at 1025 Napoleon Ave. was built in 1887. The goal is to restore the visual and structural integrity of a building that has housed three former Catholic parishes since a controversial consolidation that followed Hurricane Katrina.
“Not a Sunday goes by that someone doesn’t come up to me after Mass and say, ‘My parents were married here’ or ‘I went to this church as a child,’" said the Rev. Christopher Nalty, who heads Good Shepherd Parish. “People are connected to it, and I want the pastor in a hundred years to hear those same stories.”
The project will be comprehensive and largely focused on fixing problems with the church’s roof, as well as the water damage that resulted from those leaks, Nalty said.
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Because the work is restorative, there will be few major architectural changes. The church will be better lit both inside and out, with lighting illuminating the gold-leaf-covered cross on its steeple at night. Eroded architectural details will be repaired, and the original hardwood floors — now covered in carpet and Formica — will be restored.
“We’re not changing any of the elements of the church. We're going to make it look better than it has in recent memory,” Nalty said.
The church will remain open for services throughout the year-long restoration, save for what is expected to be a week when the floors are redone, Nalty said. Mass will be moved to St. Henry Church that week, he said.
Much of the real work won’t be as noticeable and is aimed at fixing problems caused by water intruding into the building’s structure. That includes repairs to the masonry, roof and plaster, all of which are in “dire” condition, said Raymond Armant, an architect with Trapolin-Peer Architects and the project manager for the restoration.
Patchwork repairs had been done to address some problem spots over the years, but a full restoration has never been done, Armant said.
“You really can’t stop time or reverse time, but you can definitely extend the life of the building,” Armant said.
Nalty said he’s long wanted to do major work on the church, though his first years in the parish were largely focused on unifying parishioners after St. Stephen, St. Henry and Our Lady of Good Counsel were consolidated into one new parish, Good Shepherd, in 2008, a difficult process that led to protests and the occupation of church buildings by parishioners.
The other two church buildings have returned to use within the past few years, but neither has been restored to the status of an independent parish.
Fundraising for the St. Stephen work began in earnest last year and was jump-started by a $500,000 pledge from an anonymous donor, who also promised another $500,000 as a matching gift. More than 200 families have donated some amount to the project, which now has raised about $6.2 million and is still seeking the rest of the money.
The project will be paid for through those donations and with the assistance of historic restoration tax credits.
“It’s important to me because it’s important to so many other people, too,” Nalty said.