N.Y. fight affects Zachary church

ZACHARY — St. John the Baptist Catholic Church is planning to build a new 8,000-square-foot, $5.3 million sanctuary next year that is to be highlighted by beautiful stained-glass windows.

But there’s a problem: The windows are still installed in another sanctuary, the Holy Trinity Catholic Church, in Syracuse, N.Y., where they are part of an ongoing controversy over that building’s historic “protected site” designation.

The parish, founded in 1891, held the first Mass in the German-immigrant built sanctuary on Feb. 19, 1912 and the windows were installed within the next few years, said Murray Gould, president of the Preservation Association of Central New York.

The Syracuse Planning Commission is expected to rule on the matter Monday and a lawsuit could follow.

The Diocese of Syracuse in 2009 closed the Holy Trinity parish, merged it with the nearby St. John the Baptist of Syracuse parish and put the Holy Trinity building up for sale.

The sanctuary located in an inner-city neighborhood, has been vacant ever since, said the Rev. Jon Werner, now pastor of 500 families for the combined congregations of Holy Trinity and nearby St. John the Baptist of Syracuse.

Diocese officials and preservationists agree the building is deteriorating and suffering interior damage because the roof leaks.

St. John the Baptist of Zachary contacted the Syracuse diocese last summer and made an offer to buy the property, remove 22 of the windows and the interior sacred objects and bring them here, according to Syracuse.com news reports and the Rev. M. Jeffery Bayhi, pastor at St. John in Zachary.

The deal is not final until the window issue is decided by the Syracuse government, Bayhi said. St. John the Baptist in Zachary has a membership of 1,400 families.

“We have received permission to buy the church, so that we can save and repurpose all the beautiful, sacred elements in our new church,” Bayhi said on Monday.

There have been no other offers on the Holy Trinity church, Werner said.

Neither pastor would disclose the purchase price. Both pastors said the plan is to remove the stained glass and leave protective clear windows.

The Preservation Association of Central New York and the local Syracuse Landmark Preservation Board are opposed to the deal and claim there are other ways to save the building.

The Landmark Preservation Board last month denied a permit to remove the windows and the parish appealed the decision to the Planning Commission.

According to a recent Syracuse Post Standard newspaper story, the Planning Commission, after a well-attended and emotionally charged meeting on Nov. 5, postponed a decision until Nov. 19.

“We have jumped through all the hoops the city of Syracuse has put out there,” Werner said, but if the commission rules against window removal, “the next option may be a lawsuit.”

Bayhi said he’s not sure yet what members of the Zachary church will do if the decision goes against them, but he is consulting attorneys as well.

“We have not been involved in the local politics of that diocese,” Bayhi said. “We are a third party who has made an offer that they liked.

“We were not involved in the decision to close that church,” he said.

Bayhi, who has visited the Syracuse church, said, “It’s absolutely magnificent, but it’s falling down. If this goes on for awhile, I don’t know what will happen. The water damage is very visible walking through the church.”

Werner made a statement to the recent Planning Commission and emailed a copy to The Advocate, that reads, in part, “the beauty of the church is undisputed. What is disputed is how best to preserve its mission and purpose as expressed in undisputed artistry.”

“Central to this discussion is the windows. The windows are a primary aspect of a consistent theology and unified architecture with one purpose: to promote the Catholic faith,” Werner said. “We ask that you (the Planning Commission) allow us to continue the contemporary Catholic mission and fulfill the mission of our ancestors by allowing the removal of the windows for relocation in another Catholic church where they will continue the mission of the universal church to preach, to teach and to sanctify.”

The windows, Werner said, all illustrate biblical stories.

The Syracuse church was built by German immigrants who made a tremendous sacrifice to have those windows installed, Bayhi said, “so in deference and honor to them, we will keep their names displayed at our church.”

Gould, one of the lead voices for the preservationists, also emailed a statement. It reads in part, “There have been successful reuses for historic buildings elsewhere and it can happen here if the building’s history is maintained. Removing the windows would undermine the chances for financing an adaptive reuse.”

In a telephone interview Gould said preservationists have been working on this for two years and so far had no other buyers. He also agreed the church is in dire need of repair and the association has no money to fix it.

“I don’t know who has the money to restore this building,” Bayhi said.

But Gould does have an emotional appeal for the Zachary church members.

“I hope you will see how controversial and painful this situation is for our community,” he wrote. “We do not know the parishioners at St. John the Baptist in Zachary, but I’ll assume that they are a fine group filled with faith. … I suspect that many of them would not be supportive of this plan if they knew of the heartache it is causing to the former parishioners and the neighborhood.”

Bayhi and Werner said they disagree with Gould’s emotional appeal and are confident they have a better solution.

“We certainly understand the grief process these families are going through with the loss of their church,” Bayhi said. “Whether the sacred elements in this church are moved to Zachary or not you’re still not going to have a parish church there.”

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