Good works at St. Joe Damage worse than known, but contributions meet costs

Published 2:00 am Saturday, March 10, 2012

The bell tower of St. Joseph Catholic Church was in worse shape than originally thought, so restoration work at Port Gibson’s oldest church is taking longer than expected.

“When they got up into the bell tower, they found a lot of rotten wood,” said Shirley McFatter Daigle, a parishioner active in planning and raising funds for the restoration of the church building standing since before the Civil War.

After two contract change orders and about four months of reconstruction, work on the tower and steeple might be finished in about a month after a steel beam that will add structural support to the tower is delivered.

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“It was not a surprise, but we did have to revise the work order twice and wait on that beam,” Daigle said.

The parish contracted last fall with The Durable Restoration Company, an award-winning national firm with main offices in Columbus, Ohio. The company’s credits include restorations of many churches, museum and institutional buildings including the Cathedral of St. Peter the Apostle in Jackson and St. James Episcopal Church in Baton Rouge.

The initial cost of the project was estimated at $170,000, with much of the cost contributed by the Catholic Diocese of Jackson’s Extension Society. Daigle did not say how much the changes have added to the bill, but said the parish had such generous responses to fundraising efforts in the fall, enough money is available, though additional funds might be needed for other parts of the church built in 1849.

St. Joseph’s bell tower was leaking, paint on interior walls was peeling and plaster was cracking above the church’s famed blue windows.

St. Joseph Catholic Church is popular with tourists, and the head of the Chamber of Commerce has a key to open the building to tourists when possible.

The building is an example of 19th Century Gothic Revival style, and its Communion rail and seven panels were carved from solid walnut by Daniel Foley, the 16-year-old son of the architect, Michael Foley of St. Louis. The youth also is known in Port Gibson for carving the original hand atop the Presbyterian Church, about a block away on Church Street.

The carved Stations of the Cross and cross-topped blue windows in St. Joseph are not original to the building but contribute to its appeal.

The church’s future restoration needs include adding supports to the area where the original air conditioner system was installed to correct settling of the building that has contributed to interior cracking, repointing bricks to help with moisture retention and interior painting.