Of the spires atop the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, Cardinal J. Francis Stafford once described them as two exclamation points of faith in the heart of Denver.
Presently, the spires are being slowly revived and unveiled as hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of scaffolding is removed. Repairs to the iconic Denver church have been underway since last year, but there’s still much work to be done. $2.3 million worth of work, to be exact. Though the Cathedral’s cash reserve and a steady stream of generous donations continue to fund the restoration, pastor Father Ron Cattany frankly discusses the reality of the situation.
“The money’s going to run out come April 1,” he said.
The original estimate to repair the exterior of the Cathedral was over $4 million. It has since been revised to $3.8 million. To date, $1.5 million in work has been completed; the scaffolding alone cost $985,000.
As the scaffolding comes down, freshly carved gothic stonework and refinished limestone can be seen from Colfax Avenue and beyond. While the magnificence of the restoration can’t be seen in detail from the street, the sheer amount of work Lawrence Holland and his crew of 11 with Summit Sealants has done is astounding.
The Cathedral hasn’t looked as pristine in perhaps 105 years.
It started with a grape cluster
As the Denver Catholic reported last year, it all started last March when a stone grape cluster fell from above the Holy Doors. Upon closer inspection, it was determined that the entire exterior of the Cathedral was in dire need of repair. So what happened after all these years?
Colorado’s unpredictable climate is very hard on these types of buildings, Holland explained. The Cathedral, in its 105-year lifespan, has not been immune to problems caused by freeze-thaw cycles and different temperature extremes.
“[The Cathedral] has self-destructed, as all buildings in Colorado do,” Holland said. “These buildings expand and contract and therefore tend to fall apart on their own.”
As Holland and his crew began repairs on the Cathedral spires, they made new discoveries about the extent of the damage, “which are inherent in projects of this magnitude,” he said.
They discovered that the stones at the top of the Cathedral had mild iron rods holding them in place, which has corroded over the years and grown in size. This growth over time emits a force strong enough to split stone, which happened to many of the stones on the spires. One of the ways they are attempting to control this over the next 100 years is by implementing a maintenance program.
“Buildings like the Cathedral don’t have very many expansion joints within them, and because of that they just tend to break and move wherever it decides to do that, so there’s no way of controlling that other than through a maintenance program,” Holland told the Denver Catholic.
Maintenance is an important part of an emergency repair such as this. Holland and his crew are being mindful of the future of the Cathedral as they make repairs to the stonework.
“To mitigate this down the road, we’ve installed lead-coated copper flashes, which are permanent,” Holland said. “We’ve added that in all the back sides of the gables, in all these areas that tend to harbor ice and snow and cause these huge damages that we’ve seen.”
Holland has managed to reduce costs by having a full-time stone carver on-site to carve replacement stones or repurpose some of the damaged ones. Because of the delicate and specialized nature of stone carving, one stone can cost thousands of dollars to carve. Even so, having an on-site carver reduces the costs associated with outsourcing the work.
“By having him on-site all the time, we’re not paying these astronomical fees,” Holland said. “They’re reasonable costs, they’re just high. Stone restoration is extremely expensive. There’s only a handful of people that really even do this stuff [anymore].”
Investing in the future
The repairs started at the tip top of the Cathedral and are working their way down. Coincidentally, most of the work has been at the top.
“The top 20 feet [of the spires] has virtually been replaced completely in its entirety with new and salvaged stone with high grade connecting stainless steel that will not corrode” Holland said. The good news is that as they continue moving down, the stone repairs become more minimal.
“We’re very optimistic that we’re not going to be blowing through tens of thousands of dollars in stone carvings,” Holland said.
While there have been a few delays in the work, including troubles with vandalism, Father Cattany says they haven’t been a big issue.
“This is one of those things where you do it once and you do it right,” he said. “There have been brides who are disappointed because they can’t get their front steps of the Cathedral shot, but the thing is, this has got be done right.”
The Cathedral is not only the mother church for the Archdiocese of Denver, it is embedded in the very history of Colorado. It serves hundreds of thousands of people each year, whether through outreach or just being a beautiful place to visit, and because it doesn’t a have large number of registered parishioners, financing projects such as this emergency repair can be difficult.
The building is 105 years old, and Father Cattany urges those in the archdiocese to whom the Cathedral means something to consider investing in its future so it can stand as Denver’s mother church for many years to come.
“It’s a good look at reality for a 105-year-old building that, in a very wonderful way, is very well-used,” Father Cattany said.” [We] need to keep it functional, [we] need it evangelical in terms of serving people, and [we] need to keep it safe so people feel comfortable to come here.”
To donate to the restoration of the Cathedral, visit denvercathedral.org.
A look at some of the damage
While this is by no means an extensive look at the damage that has occurred to the Cathedral over the years, here are a few trouble areas they’ve discovered.
Much of the stone on the exterior has cracked over the years from rapid freeze-thaw cycles, as can be seen here on this piece.
This piece from the east spire is an example of how corroded iron rods have caused some of the stones to split from the inside out, making them very unstable.
Some of the rich color of the stone has faded over the years, making it appear very worn. Holland and his team will remedy this using a product called liquid dirt to bring the stone back to life.
Cathedral by the numbers (annually)
Daily Mass: 23,400 people
Weekend Masses: 70,000 people
Confessions: 1000 hours
People of Capitol Hill (Breakfast sandwiches, food pantry): 39,000 people served
Visitors (Non-Mass/Confessions): 38,000 people
Exterior Façade work
Revised estimate: $3.8 million
Paid to date: $1.5 million
Remaining work: $2.3 million
Contributions received: $163,000