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Parish wrestles with decision

Fate of former St. Mary church building hangs in the balance
The former St. Mary church was completed in 1878 and served the parish for nearly 120 years.

SOLON– Although it’s been rarely used in the last 20 years, there are still a lot of memories for Solon residents in the former St. Mary Catholic Church.
But the need for cemetery space and concerns about the continuing dilapidation of the building have prompted a church committee to recommend its demolition, which led to an informational meeting held July 26 in the church’s parish hall.
Close to 100 people attended the meeting to listen to Father Tim Sheedy and architectural consultant Alan Wieskamp describe the condition of the church building and discuss potential next steps.
Many in the crowd, however, spoke of their strong ties to the old building and called for its possible preservation.
“I’d hate to see you do it– throw it away,” said Paul Stahle, whose great-grandfather helped construct the brick building. “I was baptized in that church, I was married there.”
It was a common theme expressed by several parish members in attendance.
The roots of the church run deep into Solon’s history.
The first recorded Mass in Solon was conducted in a private home by Rev. Matthias Hannon in 1853 for a congregation of four families, according to the “St. Mary’s Heritage Book,” a painstakingly-compiled history of the church published in 1999.
In 1858, a wood frame church was built, but burned to the ground.
It was not until 1875 that work began on the brick church which served the local parish for 120 years. Construction was completed in 1878 and a dedication was performed by Bishop John McMullen in 1882.
When the new St. Mary Catholic Church was built on Racine Avenue, the former church remained in use for some youth functions, but after the completion of the parish hall and classrooms in 2006, said Parish Trustee Jim Luedtka, even that went by the wayside.
The fate of the former church became a priority more recently as the congregation began to deal with a diocese requirement for available gravesites.
For several months, Luedtka and other members of the committee have been investigating the issue.
Those findings, including the discovery of asbestos in the former church building, were delivered at the July 26 meeting, and input was sought from those in attendance.
Fr. Sheedy acknowledged the connections between church families and the building, but noted the need for cemetery space was one of the main reasons for proposing the structure’s disassembly.
“We have to look into the future, 50 years, 100 years,” Sheedy said. There is some available space for a cemetery behind the current church, he added, but “I think we should use all accessible land that we can at our present cemetery.”
Sheedy said he experienced a similar situation with the church where he was an altar server as a boy.
The church was eventually demolished, but a small chapel utilizing the former church’s altar was erected as a monument to the building, and Sheedy had the honor of presiding over the last Mass.
“That was a blessing to me, to be able to celebrate with my parents in the place where they exchanged their sacramental vows,” he said.
The committee is proposing the local parish consider a small chapel with seating for six to eight people, as well as a columbarium to serve as the resting place for cremains.
The group is also considering the respectful deconstruction of the church, including its numerous stained glass windows.
“We’re going to make sure that we identify families that have a connection to any of the windows and we want to make sure we don’t leave any stone unturned for that,” said Wieskamp, a staff member with Shive-Hattery.
Wieskamp explained he had experienced the loss of a church when a tornado struck St. Patrick’s in Iowa City.
Solon’s parishioners should have the first right of refusal for the fixtures of the previous church including statuary and even bricks from the walls, which might be sold as a fundraiser to subsidize the construction of a chapel.
In addition, he said, there’s a person who expressed interest in the building’s rafters.
“Right now I’m looking for lots of opportunities of the value that’s in the church so there’s less expense to the parish,” Wieskamp said. “There’s quite a bit of that in this church.”
There are no firm estimates on the cost of demolition, he said, although better numbers are expected in a matter of weeks.
And time is a bit of an issue, Wieskamp noted.
The church conducted a survey of asbestos on the site, and state law requires abatement to take place within a year, he said, or another survey will be required.
Asbestos is present in the roof shingles and in the sealant used on the aluminum frames which encase the stained glass windows, he said.
“If a storm comes through, or a tree falls on the church, we could have a serious problem with asbestos being exposed to our community,” Fr. Sheedy noted during his remarks.
While the brick of the building is in relatively good shape, Wieskamp said, the connection between the original structure and an addition to the rear are allowing water to enter.
There are other nuisances to abate as well, including a large concentration of bird droppings in the rafters.
“What I’d really like is to hear input from the parish,” Wieskamp said. The committee has come up with some ideas, but no designs have been started, he said.
“But before we do any of that work, I want to hear from the parish members what interests them as far as what is left of the site,” he said. Wieskamp said he would be interested in knowing the reason behind the planting of locust trees along the front of the church and cemetery, as well as the large pine trees which appear to date back to the origin of the structure.
“If those are really important, we want to hear that from the parish elders,” he said. “It isn’t really about what options we want to see, it’s really about the options you would like to see.”
The option most vocalized during the meeting was an attempt at restoration.
“I’m sorry to see that it was in such terrible shape,” Rita Brannaman said, noting she was born in the shadow of the steeple. “I wish we could’ve done something to help.”
Other parishioners expressed an interest in at least knowing the cost to preserve the building, something Wieskamp said he could provide at a subsequent session.
According to Luedtka, the parish explored the cost of renovating the building in 1996 when a new church building was being considered. At the time, he said, the estimate exceeded $2 million and is likely considerably more now.
“That church building is meaningful to the community. We don’t have many historical buildings in this town. That’s one I think that could be preserved,” noted Solon resident Sandy Hanson. “I think that’s something (where) the community would rise to the occasion.”
Wieskamp said he started as a preservation architect and would prefer not to tear buildings down, but noted the parish would have to identify a use for the building which would be acceptable to the diocese.
It wouldn’t be a good use of money to protect the building without being able to use it, he said.
“I know it’s a lot of emotion, but if we bring part of that old church to the new church, maybe that would soothe some feathers,” suggested Mark Haight. “The thing about redoing the church is what are you going to do with it?”
If an addition is needed in the near future, Haight said, maybe the steeple or stained glass windows could be incorporated somehow.
Judy Miller, editor of the church history, agreed.
“I don’t know what you can do about it,” Miller said. “If Father says we need 50 graves, where are we going to get them? That’s what we have to think about.”