Fr Anthony Paganoni CS: Conservation economics

28 Feb 2008

By The Record

In the Western world and in Australia Church organisations face mounting costs to maintain and conserve buildings. At the same time they are confronted by dwindling numbers of parishioners and other competing funding objectives.

In Perth, the upkeep of nineteenth century church buildings, especially
after long periods of poor maintenance and neglect, can be a very
costly exercise. Maintaining a major church building or recapturing its
pristine beauty, ‘the spirit in stone’, is no mean task. It cannot be
approached with exclusively commercial or utilitarian goals.
No matter what may be thought or said about the ongoing restoration
work on St Mary’s Cathedral, it cannot be hidden that the decision to
overhaul the existing and partly decaying building took a high degree
of courage, at a time when Church leaders and communities seem so prone
to count empty pews rather  than navigating  with determination and
perseverance through our turbulent times.
The maintenance problems are as many and varied as anyone can guess.
They concern the movement of slate roofs, the bellying of stained glass
windows, and the deterioration of timber work through lack of painting.
The worsening condition of stonework as a result of industrial smog is
also a challenge.
Nineteenth and early twentieth century churches were usually erected on
generous and attractive sites. However, the integrity and spatial
ambience of these sites have often been eroded or diminished by the new
buildings that have sprung up dangerously close to the church building,
thus obscuring its appreciation. These ‘different’ buildings may have
been constructed on prime land in order to offset the expenses of
renovating church and adjacent buildings, or else sold to
entrepreneurial building contractors, determined to exploit the land
for commercial purposes.
The resulting ‘choking’ of the sacred space is there for all to see:
the greatly decreased visibility and appreciation of the external 
architectural value of churches, not to mention the noise level caused
by contemporary public and private transport facilities which may
affect not just the building itself but its liturgical functioning. Yet
in principle the erection of such structures need not pose an
insuperable problem. In most cases successful design solutions can be
achieved if considerations such as siting and context, architectural
scale, character and materials are properly taken into account. But
decisions are decisions.
However, in an age of pragmatism such as ours, it is heartening that
the Church which believes in the goodness and beauty of the eternal and
triune God should be less inclined than other public institutions to
succumb to ephemeral pressures or settle merely for satisfying human