Towering church regains glory of Comstock days

By Marilyn Newton • February 28, 2009,

Virginia City’s St. Mary’s in the Mountains Catholic Church is undergoing a restoration so massive the church has been closed, forcing parishioners to hold Masses at the nearby Episcopal church.

The interior of the church is full of scaffolding, and the outside, including the belfry and steeple, is encased by scaffolding as part of a $2.3 million restoration project that is due to be completed in August. So far, work is right on schedule.

The improvements are being funded by a $500,000 grant from the National Parks Service’s Save America’s Treasures program, a $200,000 grant from the Conrad Hilton Foundation and private donations from more than 700 individual donors from 40 states.

St. Mary’s in the Mountains, first built in 1862 and rebuilt after the Great Fire of 1875, will receive a structural and seismic retrofit that will make it safe from earthquakes while maintaining the historic character of the building.

“The main goal of this restoration project is to make the church seismically sound structurally,” said Lee Johnson preconstruction manager for Reyman Brothers Construction of Reno.

To that end, a network of concrete columns and beams, “like a parking garage,” are being installed on the inside against the bricks, Johnson said. They will not be visible once the restoration is complete.

A more noticeable problem is the church’s belfry and steeple. A number of years ago, it was measured and found to be leaning about 8 degrees off center. Now it is leaning closer to 12 degrees, said Nick Nicosia, administrator of the church.

“It’s going to continue to lean,” Johnson said. “Trying to straighten it might cause too much damage,” he said.

Instead, the belfry will be stabilized from the inside, he said.

The church will also get a new metal roof, replicating the one installed in 1877.

Inside, the choir loft and balconies, torn out by a group known locally as “the mad monks” in the 1950s, will be restored and made to look like the original structures. “Their removal added to the problems since they were part of the support of the structure,” Johnson said.

A fire sprinkler system also will be installed. In the basement, restrooms will be moved to make more room for the museum.

Comstock landmark

The current church is the third Roman Catholic church in Virginia City and the second St. Mary’s in the Mountains. The church is named for an event known as “Mary in the mountains,” not because it is situated in the mountains southeast of Reno.

The Rev. Hugh Gallagher, who arrived on the Comstock shortly after the discovery of silver in 1859, built the first Catholic Church in 1860. That church was blown down in a strong storm in 1861.

A year later, the Rev. Patrick Manogue, a miner and priest, arrived in the booming city and began constructing the first St. Mary’s in the Mountains. It was a wooden structure that was located about a block south of the current church and opened for services in September 1863.
Soon, the church was too small for its growing congregation. Masses were held at the wooden church until 1870.

By August 1868, a specially built kiln at a Virginia City brick factory began producing 350,000 bricks used in the walls and steeple.

Construction was slow. Father Manogue would only allow work to proceed when funding was available. Therefore, little was done in 1869 and into 1870.

Finally, on Sept. 2, 1870, the church was completed. Built in the Roman architectural style it stood 157 feet, 6 inches from the ground to the top of the brick steeple.

That same month the altar, made up of 480 pieces, arrived from France. At 21 feet tall and weighing 6,700 pounds, the altar was erected on a below-ground foundation. The first Mass was held in October 1870.

Five years later, disaster struck when the Great Fire of 1875 destroyed much of Virginia City, including its churches.

Ever resilient, Father Manogue rebuilt his church. This time, though, he built the interior in the gothic style rather than Roman. He had the original steeple removed and replaced it with a large wooden tower and steeple. The church now towered 170 feet above the ground, 12½ feet higher than the first one. Much of the exterior work was completed within two months of 1876. Not long after, a newer, more elegant church was opened.

Father Manogue served as parish priest on the Comstock for 20 years. In 1881, he was made a bishop and was transferred to Sacramento, where he died in 1895. He is buried there by his request in a simple priest’s grave.

Around the time the church was completed, mining on the Comstock had reached its peak and the town began to decline. So did the church.

‘Mad monks’

By the 1940s the church was in a desperate state of disrepair, and in 1957, it seemed the building would be forever changed with the coming of the Rev. Robert Jelliffe, a Cistercian monk who had formed a monastic order he called the Damascus Society. Locally, the society was called “the mad monks.”

His quest was to modernize the church. To that end, he ordered the removal of the interior fixtures, the ornate choir loft and balconies and even the blue rose window on the west side of the church.

He also covered up a large painting by Canadian artist Felix Alcan depicting Mary in the mountains that had hung above the main altar since 1877.

The mad monks remained in Virginia City only one year, but their impact on the church was significant.

The stained glass windows were gone, and although some of the pieces from the interior were saved, most ended up in the landfill.

Restoration ongoing

The Rev. Caesar Caviglia was then brought in as parish priest and he began the task of once again rebuilding the church.

Restoration continued in 1979 when Virginia City craftsman Jim Warren was hired to restore the gothic altar. A year later, scaffolds surrounded the church for needed exterior repairs including new mortar between the bricks. Also, a metal roof, replicating the 1877 roof, was installed.

In reality, restoration has been an ongoing project for the past 147 years.

Today the church has a congregation of about 20 people, but it attracts tourists by the thousands each year.

Click here to return to Virginia City

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