Last week marked the latest milestone in the restoration of Nevada's oldest Catholic church building, St. Augustine's. That's when a new steel roof was completed for the red brick, Gothic revival and Italianate structure that has been a part of the historic silver mining town of Austin since 1866.
The new roof means no more "flown-in insulation," as the building's owner, Jan Morrison, calls the 25 cubic yards of bird droppings that accumulated in the rafters over the years by falling through gaps in the old tin and aluminum roof. Morrison isn't sure how much it weighed, but after a hazmat crew removed the guano, she says, "the ceiling raised up two inches." The porous old roof had also splayed the tops of the walls out by up to seven feet, so they had to be pulled back into position before the new one went on.
Churches thrived alongside saloons during Austin's 19th-century heyday as a silver mining boom town. However, St. Augustine's has stood vacant since 1981, the year a state engineer declared it structurally unsafe. Rather than pay for its restoration, as the local congregation wanted, the Catholic Diocese in Reno shut it down that same year.
Austin's Catholics rebelled by holding their own lay masses inside St. Augustine's and refusing to recognize the authority of Battle Mountain's priest, to whose parish they had been reassigned.
A new bishop assigned to Reno in the 1990s supported restoration, but the diocese, as a religious organization, didn't qualify for public funds. The solution: find a restoration-minded private buyer. Enter Morrison, a local merchant and expatriate from Las Vegas, who bought the church in 2004 for $26,000. Since forming the nonprofit St. Augustine's Cultural Center, she has received $353,000 in state grants to finance the restoration.
Morrison's next task is to reconstruct the bell tower, then restore the 14 murals depicting the Stations of the Cross, painted in the 1930s. After that, she hopes to repatriate old vestments, chalices, and statues currently being held in storage by the Reno Diocese.
The entire project should be finished by summer 2008, when Morrison will open the church for tours. Eventually, St. Augustine's Cultural Center will host community functions, cultural programs, classes, and even the occasional church service.
- Dana Magliari for Preservation Online