Jewel of St. Stephen’s Church to be restored

A historic church is not exactly like a fine wine.
In fact, due to the elements of wind, rain, termites and the relentless southeast Louisiana humidity, an aging New Orleans church usually is no match for the elements.
Over the last several decades, nature has exacted its toll on St. Stephen Church (of Good Shepherd Parish) on Napoleon Avenue, and Msgr. Christopher Nalty has announced plans to transform the Uptown gem with a $6.2 million, steeple-to-floor restoration of the sacred space that will have the church shining once again, inside and out.
When Msgr. Nalty first talked to architect Peter Trapolin, he told him he wanted a restored church, not simply a “renovated” one.
“Peter asked me in the beginning, and I told him I wanted to restore the church from the tip of the steeple to the foundation (which is solid),” Msgr. Nalty said. “We’re doing this on faith. If we’re going to do it, we’re going to do it all the way.”

Funding almost complete
Msgr. Nalty already is well along the way of raising the funds for the ambitious project, which is expected to start later this month and take 10 to 12 months to complete. In addition to receiving several generous pledges from anonymous donors, the parish is searching for additional funds to match a $500,000 challenge grant from an anonymous donor that would fully fund the restoration.
“We are trying to reach out to our untapped market – the thousands of people who went to elementary or high school at St. Stephen or who were baptized or married here,” Msgr. Nalty said. “I can’t tell you the people who come up to me after church every Sunday and tell me they got married here or were baptized here. If we can match the challenge grant, we’ll be over the top.”
The project also qualifies for the use of Historic Tax Credits.
Trapolin-Peer Architects drew up the plans for the restoration, and the general contractor is Donahue-Favret, which did the renovations to St. Francis of Assisi Church on State Street.

Church needs waterproofing
The church, which was built in 1868 and completed in 1887, desperately needs a new roof and exterior waterproofing, which will be the bulk of the expense targeted at keeping moisture from invading and harming the plaster inside the church, Msgr. Nalty said.
“We have to close the envelope of the building – the roof, the flashing, tuck-pointing the entire building and restore the plaster inside,” he said. “We’re going to go back to the original wooden floors. There will be a new lighting scheme and new wiring. One of my favorite things will be the new exterior lighting so that when you’re driving down Napoleon, you’ll be able to see the steeple and the cast-bronze, 24-karat, gold-leafed cross at night. This is historic preservation. We’re restoring one of the great symbols in our city. By the end of this thing, it’s going to be gorgeous.”

Plaster has been failing
Msgr. Nalty said so much plaster has failed on the interior of the church that it has fallen to the floor and even rested in the pews, although it has not harmed anyone.
“I’ve come into church and seen it all over the pews,” he said. “When water comes into the walls, it wicks out and pushes the plaster off. All of the mortar between the bricks is going to be re-tuck-pointed.”

Many of the architectural elements that have been damaged by the weather over the years are being recast, as well. The interior walls will be painted a neutral color.

Trapolin said Msgr. Nalty has insisted on doing the restoration “right.”

“He wants to make sure we get all the details correct,” Trapolin said. “His vision is that this building, when it’s complete, will last for another 150 years.”

Archbishop Gregory Aymond presided over a groundbreaking ceremony for the restoration on June 7. Msgr. Nalty said there will be no weddings until next spring in St. Stephen Church because the construction work will require scaffolding to be placed in various sections of the church.

“A bride is coming in in March – she was baptized here and made her first Communion here – and she says she wants to be in that church,” Msgr. Nalty said.

Church services may have to be moved temporarily to St. Henry Church in the next block while the flooring in St. Stephen Church is refurbished.

The capital campaign is headed by Michael Riess.

“This is a great church and needs to be refurbished,” Riess said.

For more information, call 899-1378.

Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at  

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