Planning panel denies removal of windows

The members of St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in Zachary will apparently have to wait still longer to finalize plans for a new $5.3 million sanctuary.

Syracuse.com reported that the Syracuse Planning Commission on Monday voted against allowing the removal from the historic, but now vacant Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Syracuse, N.Y., 22 stained-glass windows that the Zachary church wanted to repurpose in a new sanctuary.

What happens next is not yet clear, according to pastors in both cities and a Syracuse preservationist.

The Syracuse church was closed in 2010 when its congregation was merged with a nearby parish. The Rev. Jeffery Bayhi and his building committee in Zachary contacted the Diocese of Syracuse to purchase the property and bring the windows, some furniture and the sacred objects to Zachary to repurpose them into a new 8,000-square-foot sanctuary to be built along La. 64, on the northeast corner of the current St. John the Baptist Church campus.

The deal hinges, however, on the removal of the stained-glass windows and furnishings. Protective, clear windows would remain in place.

“We plan to continue to work with the (Syracuse) diocese and pursue all the options available to us,” Bayhi said this week. “It is their issue to be resolved. We certainly hope this is not the end of it.”

The Rev. Jon Werner, pastor of Holy Trinity and John the Baptist churches in Syracuse, said in an email: “Needless to say, I was disappointed by the decision but not surprised. The decision of the Planning Board was the final option for remediation via City channels. At this point we are reviewing what options we have available. So while there are ongoing discussions there are no decisions.”

Werner had said previously that legal action was a possibility, and Bayhi is also consulting with attorneys.

The Syracuse Diocese’s attorney, Andrew Leja, argued in a Nov. 19 Planning Commission meeting that the city was violating the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000, which says a government cannot — without a compelling reason — implement a land-use regulation that imposes a substantial burden on a church’s exercise of religion.

The church’s exercise of religion, the Syracuse parish claims, is repurposing the windows into another church and the burden is the enormous costs of maintaining a vacant, deteriorating building.

According to Syracuse.com, Planning Commission member Linda Henley said she did not see a denial of the request to remove the windows as an infringement on the parish’s mission. Removing them would not be in the best interest of neighborhood, she said.

Murray F. Gould, president of the Preservation Association of Central New York, told The Advocate this week that he offered Werner assistance.

“We want to see a good use. We want to see the building continue in some viable form and a rebirth of the neighborhood,” Gould said. “We’re willing to help any way we can. It’s not about winning and losing; it’s about coming together as a community and finding a good solution to a tough problem.”