ALLEGANY, N.Y. – When worshippers arrived for Mass at St. Bonaventure Church after Christmas, they stepped into a brighter interior and many new features. The church, less than a mile west of St. Bonaventure University, received a complete overhaul late last year – including a fresh coat of paint, and new padded pews, wood floors, track lighting, a public address system, and equipment to better circulate the air. The church in Western New York also has new electrical wiring and restrooms in the sacristies.
The parish rededicated and blessed the church building during Masses on the weekend of Jan. 18. After the evening Mass on Saturday, parishioners who had gathered for a potluck dinner-social were surprised with a keepsake ornament – which was hand-crafted by parish trustee Ken Moyer and his wife Sylvia from the wood of the book holders that had been part of the old pews.
The renovation project was a ‘refreshing’ of the interior of the 90-year-old building on Route 417, according to the pastor, Jim Vacco, OFM.
“The church was last painted around 1988, and it was beginning to show a lot of dirt on the walls from the heating system,” he said. “The pews were original. Over the years, they had been refinished, but they also were showing much wear and tear. The rugs throughout the church also needed replacing.”
With St. Bonaventure enjoying financial stability, the pastor and members of the parish cabinet decided that the parish was in a position to address the aging physical plant by undertaking a significant renovation project – which was financed from restricted savings and designated funding from the Upon This Rock Diocesan Campaign, according to Jim.
“With the stock market being strong, now was the time to take on this project without risk to the portfolio,” he said. “Also, for the last six years, we had been taking a monthly collection to help fund the renovation – plus, we had funds available from the parish memorial account. The funding was there to tackle this much-needed renovation.”
Built in 1930 after a fire destroyed the church on the campus of St. Bonaventure University that had served the Allegany community, this is the parish’s third church building.
The original church in Allegany, situated across the street from the present-day building, was constructed in 1854, one year before the friars arrived, according to Dominic Monti, OFM, distinguished professor of Franciscan research at SBU.
“It served as a worship place until the church was built on campus. Then the parishioners used the building for catechism classes. It was finally torn down in 1934. That church had been named St. Nicholas, the patron saint of Nicholas Devereux, benefactor of the early friars,” Dominic explained.
He said that the second church, along with other parts of a large building on the campus, were destroyed in the university’s great fire of 1930. Only the statue of the Blessed Mother survives, now standing outside Hickey Dining Hall located on the site of the old church.
Dominic, who attended Mass on the 12th day of Christmas (Jan. 5) at the newly renovated church that’s nicknamed “Little Bona’s,” afterward posted on Facebook congratulatory comments to the pastor and “committed parishioners” for the “wonderful” outcome.
The renovation of St. Bonaventure Church was executed by Kinley Corporation of Allegany. The project began on Sept. 3 with the removal of all furnishings and asbestos abatement of the flooring material, which dated back to 1931.
During the construction work, weekend Masses were held in the parish’s Memorial Hall. To accommodate members of the congregation who had difficulty maneuvering the steps into the hall, arrangements were made with the nearby Field of Dreams Assisted Living facility to hold Saturday evening Mass in the community room.
The renovation, which required almost two years of planning, was a collaborative effort, according to Jim, who worked with a parish team that included trustees, an architect and members of the parish cabinet. He communicated frequently with the St. Bonaventure community, publishing progress photos and written updates in the parish bulletin throughout the three-month process.
Additions – and a Surprise Discovery
Besides the refreshed look that the painting and new flooring gave the church, the renovation included three significant additions:
- installation of statues of the Blessed Mother and St. Joseph, which were originally in the chapel of the former Christ the King Seminary (now Francis Hall) on the SBU campus. James said the statues are commissioned original wood carvings by the German artist Otto Georg Hitzberger, who created them in 1952 at a studio in Syracuse, New York, specifically for the seminary chapel. “When I learned they were available, I thought placing them in the renovated church would maintain their legacy within the community. They needed some cleaning and touching up, but now under new lighting, they just sparkle,” Jim said.
- repurposing the former iron altar rail as a railing for the interior side entrance to the church, and as a railing from the nave to the sanctuary.
- re-using the iron-gilded baptismal font. “For the last decade, it was adapted to be the credence table for the bread and wine for Mass. But its design fits with the other ironwork in the sanctuary, so we decided to restore and re-use it as the baptismal font – which has both an ecumenical aspect and local community connection,” Jim said.
When the Allegany Presbyterian Church closed more than a year ago, it donated its wooden baptismal font and some other furnishings to St. Bonaventure Parish. The wooden baptismal font now serves as the new credence table – much to the delight of a former parish trustee whose now-deceased husband was one of the leading members and a deacon of the Presbyterian Church, according to Jim.
As in most renovation projects, there was a surprise discovery: a coat-of-arms of the Franciscan Order was found behind wallpaper.
“When the painters were removing the wallpaper, they said it felt like something was underneath – and that’s when they discovered the Franciscan coat-of-arms,” said Jim, who immediately contacted a local artist – who remembered the crest from his childhood – to restore and re-install it on Jan. 25.
Another renovation highlight was the painting of the Stations of the Cross that surround the nave. “Mikel and Tim Truman took on the task of making the scenes come alive,” Jim explained. “The sky in the images is one of the artistically unique features in their restoration. Mikel is modifying the scenes to have the sky reflect the time of day the episode took place so that a person praying the Stations of the Cross will view the episode from sunrise, with the scene of the sentencing of Jesus, to death, to sunset with his burial.”
As part of the renovation, the parish created a time capsule made from one of the old pews and placed under the sanctuary floor. “It contains notes from parishioners with memories of their time at the parish, and messages for future parishioners,” said Jim. “We have enclosed more than 100 letters and pictures.”
A former pastor of Little Bona’s from 1985 to 1999, Bernardine Kessing, OFM, said he is impressed with the renovation. Although he lives in New Jersey at St. Catherine of Siena Nursing Home in Caldwell – and has not been to the church in several years – Bernardine stayed current with the makeover by reading updates in parish bulletins provided by church staff members.
“The church looks much brighter now. Jim did a great job. It looks amazing. The contrast between the dark wood and white walls is striking,” said Bernardine, who grew up in Elmira, less than two hours from Allegany. “I can see that Jim put a lot of thought into the details of the project.”
Jim reflected on the significance of the building and its history.
“When I was studying theology, I remember hearing over and over again in class that the word ‘church’ originally designated a living body or group of people,” said Jim, a 1976 graduate of SBU. “Over time, the term became associated with a particular type of structure. Yes, the church is the people and the people have a gathering place that becomes their home base. Every family has a family home.”
He continued, “Since 1931, generations of families have gathered in this structure – in this home of the faithful,” he said. “Now refreshed, it is ready to welcome the present and future generations of the faithful, and all who come through its doors for communal worship, private prayer, and fellowship.”
Photos of the church can be found on the St. Bonaventure Parish Facebook page.
– Jocelyn Thomas is the director of communications for Holy Name Province.
- “Commemorating St. Bonaventure: The Saint and the Parishes” – July 25, 2018, HNP Today
- “Midtown Manhattan Church Completes Restoration” – Sept. 24, 2018, HNP Today
- Otto Hitzberger website