Restoring the Basilica

When French architect Emanuel Masqueray built the Basilica of St. Mary in the early 1900s, he neglected to factor in an important Minnesota characteristic.

“He didn’t really understand the weather patterns here that are so extreme,” said Johan M. J. van Parys, director of liturgy and sacred arts at the Basilica.

“It is rumored that in the 1970s and early 1980s there were more buckets in the church collecting water than there were people attending services,” van Parys added.

Congregational and community efforts since that time have led to projects like replacing the dome and sealing the building from moisture. This month, restoration work on the sacristy finishes, the first step toward a planned interior facelift that would return the Basilica to its original glory.

The sacristy is located between the rectory (now used as office space) and the main worship area. Priests use it to put on their vestments and make other preparations for mass. It was built between 1920 and 1928, the same time that decorative touches on the interior of the rest of the Basilica wrapped up.

“In the 1950s, there had been a repainting of the sacristy in 1950s colors, not taking into account the original color scheme,” said van Parys. 

Last fall, the Basilica received a grant for restoration work from Partners in Preservation, a partnership between the National Trust for Historic Preservation and American Express. Partners in Preservation picks a different city each year and hands out $1 million in grant money to local historic sites. The Basilica won a popular vote contest on Facebook, allowing them to receive the full amount they requested for the work: $110,000.

The grant funded restoration of the paint to its original colors, new plaster moldings to replace old ones damaged from water leakage and stone cleaning. Outside money covered the cost of new light fixtures.

Conrad Schmitt Studios, a restoration and conservation group based in New Berlin, Wis., did the work on the sacristy, including some of the research into the 1928 designs.

“It’s an interesting sort of archaeological dig,” said Heidi Emery, vice president of Conrad Schmitt Studios. “They [the Basilica archives] have amazing original Emmanuel Masqueray drawings.”

The grant also covered similar work on the narthex, the public entryway between the doors to the street and the doors to the worship area. The narthex work, done by EverGreene Architectural Arts, wrapped up this spring.

“The reason we proposed those projects is because those projects are going to show what the rest of the church on the inside is going to look like when it’s restored,” said Chuck Liddy, vice president of Miller Dunwiddie Architecture. 

Liddy serves on the facilities assessment committee and is the principle architect retained by the Basilica for upkeep and restoration projects. He would like to see the full restoration happen within the next five years.

“We haven’t done anything about it because the walls were so wet for so many years because of the roof leaks and the wall leaks,” Liddy said. “We’re heartened to know that the walls and the plaster now are dry.”

The facilities assessment committee periodically assesses the work needed and gets bids on the cost of the project.

The Basilica Landmark, a nonprofit that handles funding for building preservation, is in the process of determining an ideal time to launch a capital campaign for an interior restoration. Michael Vandyke, the group’s research and grants coordinator, said she also would like to see the work start in the next few years.

A full interior restoration would top off the work that has been done so far to restore the building, but van Parys, Vandyke and members of the facilities assessment committee agree that the work will never be quite finished.

Peter Crain, president of C3 Construction Services, is a member of the facilities assessment committee and of the congregation. Crain and his wife got married at the Basilica in 1991 when the first big project — the roof replacement — was underway. Scaffolding surrounded the altar during the ceremony.

“We have some very interesting wedding pictures,” 

Crain said.

Crain does not think the Basilica will ever fall into the kind of disrepair seen in the 1970s and ’80s. But ongoing fundraising and maintenance projects will be necessary to prevent this, he added.

“It’s been a constant battle of raising money and doing projects and trying to do it right,” Crain said. “You could never say, ‘Once you do this, you’re done.’”