Church on the Move: Basilica Style Church to Be Moved 900 Miles to Georgia

Historic building will head south, piece by piece.

Nov. 7, 2010— -- Sharon Wilbur clings to the rosary she carried as a child as she looks through old family photographs of weddings, baptisms and first communions. The three generations of memories all took place in the same church, St. Gerard's Catholic Church, in Buffalo, N.Y.

But like so many children of the rustbelt, Wilbur left those memories behind many years ago when the south promised better opportunities.

For Wilbur, Sunday mass is now in suburban Atlanta, at Mary Our Queen, in a nondescript building that looks more like an office park than a Catholic basilica.

She never dreamed she'd see her family's church again until her pastor announced one Sunday what seemed like a crazy idea: He wanted to have traditional place of worship by moving an existing church, piece by piece, to the open lot next door.

The real surprise came when he revealed where he'd found the perfect transplant.

"I said, 'Ah, that was my parish. That's where I was born,'" Wilbur says. "I thought it was just amazing."

When Father David Dye went in search of more space for his growing congregation, he says he didn't want a church from typical suburbia.

"I don't mean to offend the people who built those churches, but some of them look like Pizza Huts," he says.

Dye first asked for blueprints to build a church that would look and feel old. But then the diocese of Buffalo came up with a unique idea for solving their problem of closed and empty parishes. They offered to sell him an entire church if he could move it 900 miles south to Norcross, Ga.

Dye soon discovered the idea could be pulled off for less than half the cost of building a new church from scratch. If his parish can raise $16 million, they'll be able to move St. Gerard's, piece by piece on flatbed trucks.

Disassembling the church will take six months and the reconstruction another year, but architects have already created 3-D models of the church so that it can be put back together like a puzzle.

"If you were to go to Home Depot and buy pieces and build a church, well you've got to get the pieces from somewhere," Dye says. "This is just coming here to get the pieces and the parts of the church."

What's happening at St. Gerard's is an unusual remedy to a problem facing the Catholic Church across the Northeast and Midwest. What do you do with old closed buildings, when shrinking congregations force the doors to close?

Of the hundreds of buildings that have been closed, some have found new life as malls, restaurants or even bars. But hundreds of closed churches sit empty, as Catholics from the rust belt have left for the Bible belt. Now for the first time, an entire church may go with them.

But not if Buffalo's City Council President David Franczyk has his way.

"It's totally insane, because you're trying to harvest our treasures out of Buffalo," Franczyk says.

Franczyk is fighting the move, pushing to make it illegal to take old buildings from his city, just like in Egypt or Rome.

"You know you can be arrested and put in jail in some countries for doing this sort of thing," Franczyk says. "Just because Buffalo is temporarily down on its luck, you don't like organ transplants, take our life out of our city."

But for now there's no life at St. Gerard's, and no better ideas for what to do with it. The roof of the old church is leaking, the pews are covered in mold, and the dozens of stained-glassed windows are beginning to buckle.

Even the former pastor of St. Gerard's, Rev. Francis Mazur, would like to see his old church go.

"Why should a church become a restaurant, or a nightclub? Let's reuse it for its intention. It's a holy place. A sacred place," Mazur says.

Dye agrees, but says he also understands the concerns his plan raises.

"Am I happy that this parish closed? Certainly not. This church was built by working families. Immigrant families. So they really sacrificed to build this place," Dye says. "But it will continue to be used as a church, which I think is very important for the people who built it to be used as a church."

At least one descendant of those families agrees.

Sharon Wilbur still remembers gazing up at the massive dome and ornate ceiling inside St. Gerard's. Now she waits to be reunited with her childhood and family memories, piece by piece.