Diocese’s actions questioned

Despite possible buyer, unused Lilly school being torn down; Portage churches could be next

Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski St. Brigid’s Catholic School in Lilly is being demolished by Tyrone-based G&R Excavating & Demolition.

It’s one church school down in Lilly and two more church buildings in Portage likely to go, though G&R Excavating & Demolition owner Glenn Ray said no plans were solid.

Ray is active with the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown as a parishioner of a local church and is involved with setting budgets and planning for church building demolitions. When the bishop decides they are going to do it, they put the projects out to bid, and Ray competes as part of that, he said.

This week, his crew began demolishing St. Brigid’s Catholic School in Lilly. The former Sacred Heart of Jesus Church and Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Church, both in Portage, could be next.

Last January, three bidders wanted to buy the Portage church buildings, but the diocese’s Bishop Mark L. Bartchak hadn’t given the approval, frustrating Borough Council leaders who wanted the vacant buildings active.

“We set budgets for those buildings. We do a lot of budget development before the diocese makes a move,” Ray said.

He said he believes the church buildings in Portage will be demolished like the school in Lilly, but he added that he could not comment with certainty at this point.

Although a buyer wanted to purchase the St. Brigid school, Ray said the structure had no insulation; the windows were terrible; and the heating was terrible. “It’s a dinosaur. It could not be converted to what they wanted. All it does is make the diocese look bad when someone runs their mouth.”

Strategy questioned

However, people in towns where these buildings are being demolished scratch their heads at the alleged lack of transparency by the diocese in their decision.

Many people wondered why Our Lady of the Alleghenies Parish Council chose to demolish the school at a cost of $35,000 instead of selling it for a profit.

An online petition “Do not allow St. Brigid’s school to be razed” had 104 supporters.

Joe Skura of Lilly, who said he is not a parishioner, established the online petition.

He and others said the parish council had an opportunity to sell the building.

“What kind of payback are they getting?” Skura said.

Former church council member Jeannie George echoed Skura’s sentiment.

“It doesn’t make any sense,” she said. “The cost to demolish it is $35,000. Someone reached out to buy it and turn it into a community center.”

George said the building’s value was appraised at $60,000.

George said originally Stella Productions of Johnstown proposed to make the building a venue for art exhibits, a rental space for meetings and possibly a library.

Chad Pysher is both a native of Lilly and owner of Stella Productions, which has repurposed churches in the area.

“We would have done the building studies for our proposals, and I believe they would have turned out fine. With modern HVAC technology and zoning, it lends itself to that. Parts of the building would be zoned off and others used. We never got the chance to speak to that at all,” he said. “It is unfortunate. If we were able to publicly share our proposal to the parish and town, they would have embraced it.”

In November 2015, Pysher toured the building.

“It was strong and solid with tremendous potential to be repurposed. That’s what we do,” he said.

“We talked about proposing it for multi-use as an artist space, a new location for the Lilly library to use, or the historical society. We also looked into making it an extension of the Casimir Cultural Center in Johnstown with language classes and art classes,” he said. “The reuse we proposed was true to its original use — to educate.”

Proposal rejected

But he said the company’s proposal was flatly denied by the diocese in a letter sent to him by the parish priest.

An architect had estimated that $1.2 million would need to be invested in the structure to bring it to code, but Pysher said he respectfully disagreed with that unnamed architect.

St. Brigid Catholic School was built in 1901 by hand, by the townspeople, he said. The wood was gathered from mountains in Lilly. It was built in response to a 1895 state law that prohibited religious sisters from teaching in public schools in religious garb. A local priest responded by building that school at a cost of $6,500 at the time, he said.

Immigrant Catholic families flocked there to remove children from bigotry of the time. Immigrants wanted to protect children from hate. In 1924, the Ku Klux Klan came to Lilly for a direct attack against Catholic immigrants working in the mines. St. Brigid’s was absolutely a target, he said. There’s a monument in town to the townspeople who pushed the KKK back.

“You don’t have to be Catholic to appreciate the building. The state’s historical society encouraged Pysher to apply for the property to be listed as a landmark,” he said.

Part of campus

The former St. Brigid school building sits next to three other buildings on the Our Lady of the Alleghenies Parish campus — a convent, a church, a school and a rectory. Pysher said all four of them are unique for such a rural area.

The diocese on Friday returned the Mirror’s requests from earlier this week for information about the decision to demolish the building.

Spokesman Tony DeGol’s response did not signal any consideration of Pysher’s proposals.

“Neither the parish nor the diocese would have any control over how a new owner would utilize the former school building,” DeGol said.

“Since it is our desire to maintain the integrity of all parish properties, Our Lady of the Alleghenies and the diocese were concerned about selling a building that is so close to the church,” DeGol stated.

The parish pays property and liability insurance on the building. If the building is not demolished, further deterioration will likely occur, increasing the liability to the parish, DeGol said. The one-time expense of demolishing the building is more cost-effective for the parish than continuing to pay insurance and maintenance costs in the coming years, as well as any unforeseen expenses in the future, DeGol said.

“Our goal throughout the diocese is to always be good stewards of the resources entrusted to us. We recognize that the building has historic and sentimental value to some, however, it does not make good financial sense to continue paying insurance and other costs on a structure that is not being used and will pose an increasing liability risk to the parish,” DeGol wrote.

As Ray prepares to possibly demolish two more church buildings in Portage in the near future, he reflected on a hard reality faced by churches.

“With the fall and the way things have changed in terms of people going to church and donating to the church, buildings get run into the ground as a result. The Catholic diocese is not the only church seeing the fall. There are churches in other denominations we work with and tear down,” he said. “People are not going to church the way they did in 1960s and ’70s. It’s a shame, but it’s happening.”

Mirror Staff Writer Russ O’Reilly is at 946-7435.