By William Kibler
The Altoona Mirror
Read Article at The Altoona Mirror

Monsignor Robert Mazur said it was like a phone call ordered by God.

It came two years ago from the Kopp drugstore company, asking whether Mazur's Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament parish was interested in buying the vacant building the business owned across 14th Street from the rectory.

At the time, parish leaders were struggling with the need for a quick decision on the long-postponed problem of what to do with the mostly vacant old Cathedral school and the fully vacant convent next door - and how to provide more appropriate space for a multitude of parish activities.

The parish leaders needed to make a quick decision then, because the furnace in the school - which also supplied the convent with heat - had cracked and was permanently out of commission.

The lack of heat meant that the parish's 140 students who attend public school had to take their weekend religion classes in the church hall, a big open space where makeshift cardboard partitions didn't fully separate the eight distinct class groups, making it impossible to teach effectively.

The parish had recently learned that renovating one of the old buildings up to code would cost $1.5 million, while razing and replacing both with a two-story, elevator-equipped, multi-purpose structure would cost almost as much.

Alternative cheaper

The Kopp's call was a prescription for relief because it meant that for less money, the parish could get more space to handle more functions more comfortably - with a surplus for parish growth - while adding the parking slots it has long lacked on the site of the old buildings.

"It just seemed that God was with us," Mazur said.

At $1.2 million, the cost was still high for an inner-city parish, even one with 900 households.

But even though the effort didn't begin until late October, it's essentially done: The parish has a commitment for all the money, in the form of three- or five-year pledges.

"Amazing," said Dave Kimmel, co-chairman of the campaign.

God may have been with the parish, but so was John Kearns & Associates of Buffalo, a fundraising consultant guiding the effort.

The company analyzed the parish roster and determined that the target total was feasible, then laid out its case in a booklet titled "Moving Forward in Faith."

"Reaching our goal requires gifts of sacrifice rather than convenience," the booklet states.

Its key strategy is to spread the giving over time.

"Being able to spread it out over five years really helps," said Jennifer Crawford, chairwoman of the Parish Council.

"A significant gift of $4,000 can be made on a sacrifice of about $2 per day, after a 10 percent down payment," the booklet states.

30 percent involved

About 30 percent of households participated, Mazur said.

Half the money is coming from "major" pledges, which are $50,000 or more, said Kimmel, who was a professional fundraiser for Penn State Altoona.

None of the donations were corporate.

Pledges are still coming in, and the excess will ensure against a shortfall or into savings.

Parishioner Dave Ward credits Mazur for the speedy success. "He did a wonderful job explaining," Ward said.

People reciprocated to Mazur's history of giving generously of his time, he said.

"People rallied around," he said. "In their hearts and pocketbooks, something resonated."

Parish leaders invited every household to one of several receptions, where they and the consultant explained the campaign.

Volunteers conducted house visitations and made phone calls.

The consultant predicted 75 volunteers at best, but twice as many came forward, Mazur said.

There was some "discomfort" asking people for money, but campaigners were fortified by having given themselves, he said.

It's a generous parish, said consulting company President Jack Kearns.

Slope eases access

The 33,000-square-foot, three-story Kopp building sits on a steep downslope from 13th Avenue, which will allow for ground-floor entrances on all levels, eliminating the need for an elevator.

The middle floor, accessible from the parking lot on the rectory side, with eight classrooms and a central gathering area, will serve mainly for religious education.

The bottom floor, accessible from the alley in back, with a banquet hall and kitchen, will be the site for instructions for parents before baptisms, youngsters before first confession, first communion and confirmation and engaged couples before marriage; and for funeral receptions when there's a conflict with an event in the church hall.

The top floor will hold offices for the parish secretary and priests, a conference room, a small instruction room and an artifacts room.

The "sacramental formation" space will relieve crowding in the rectory basement, while the office space will allow the first floor of the rectory to return to residential and reception purposes for the priests and Bishop Mark Bartchak, as intended, according to Mazur.

"The rectory is like Grand Central Station" now, Mazur said.

The lowest floor of the Kopp building could also become the site for a monthly hot meal for the needy on weekends, Mazur said.

Exterior to match

The exterior of the building will match the limestone exteriors of the rectory and church.

But it will be "faux" - acrylic stucco over polystyrene insulation, or "Exterior Insulation and Finish Systems" cladding, he said.

The Cathedral has ordered the hardest grade of stucco to ensure durability, Mazur said.

Actual limestone would have been far too expensive, Crawford said.

The building will include components from the buildings being demolished, with all the windows of the new facility being stained glass windows from the convent, with the bell of the convent installed in a belfry above the 13th Avenue entrance and with crosses along the roof line that had adorned the roofline of the old school.

Other items from the old building, as well as artifacts already set aside in the church or rectory, will go into the archives room.

Asked whether attention being paid to preservation provides a relief valve for sadness at the building demolitions, Mazur said, "absolutely."

Another such release occurred last summer, when alumni of the school, built in 1880, held a memorial gathering.

The demolitions are sad, said Mike Kasun, who organized the gathering.

He was a member of the first first-grade class of McNelis Elementary, formed as a consolidation of St. Leo's, SS. Peter and Paul and Cathedral schools.

"It was one of the great institutions of Catholic learning in Altoona," Kasun said.

It was a sweet gathering, with former students sharing items like old basketball jerseys and cheerleader uniforms, Crawford said.

Building coming down

The demolitions began Friday, as a huge excavator fitted with a giant claw bucket gnawed at the bricks.

Looking like a prehistoric raptor, it removed the entire face of the building by late afternoon, taking down the work of 1920s bricklayers and plasterers much more swiftly than they'd put it up.

Jane Kiser was watching from across 13th Avenue.

"There's (going to be) nothing left historical in Altoona," she said.

Her aunt, the late Sister Mary Edna Trexler, used to live in the convent and teach in the school, and Kiser herself worked as a secretary in the rectory for most of a decade 30 years ago.

Once, in the early 1980s, when the convent was empty for Thanksgiving, her aunt gave her extended family permission to hold its holiday feast there, she said.

Afterward, the men watched football on TV, the women cleaned up and the kids played hide and seek in the basement, where there was a long, dark corridor with doors on either side.

A back staircase added intrigue to the game.

"I really, really hate to see it come down," she said.

Losing history

The school and convent represent "great religious architecture," said city Planning Director Lee Slusser.

"It looks like a Catholic school," Slusser said. "You don't even need a sign."

The school is visible from the conference room in his department's suite of offices in City Hall, and employees will miss it, he said.

Both buildings are contributing structures to one of the city's two downtown historic districts, he said.

But unlike Hollidaysburg, Altoona doesn't restrict owners from demolishing historic district buildings, he said.

"That idea was looked into a long time ago," he said. "Maybe we should look at it again."

Why not spend renovation money on the much older buildings, Kiser wondered.

Simply letting the buildings sit was no longer an option, according to Mazur.

"The city was breathing down our throats," he said. The parish was under order to raze or repair the school, he said.

The parish hopes to begin work on the Kopp renovation in spring and occupy at least the middle floor by fall, according to Mazur.

The Diocese of AltoonaJohnstown will provide a line of credit to fund the work, based on the campaign pledges.

The pledges are not legally binding, according to the booklet.

But Mazur expects about 95 percent compliance, based on his experience with the annual Catholic appeal.

"We know he only asks when there's a need," Ward said of Mazur. "I'm very glad he can sit back and say, 'it's over.'"