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Foreman Mark Schmidt (left) of Jacksonville Art Glass works to restore one of St. Columba’s stained glass windows in Ottawa. The window to the right has been restored. Years of soot from votive candles left a deep film that needs more than Windex and elbow grease to remove. Jacksonville was retained to restore the windows and uses a detailed process in which they tag each individual piece to ensure correct replacement.
The north side of St. Columba, exterior covered with scaffolding, as it gets a face-lift. Once covered in a yellowish stucco veneer that had chipped and fallen away, the church actually was constructed of red brick that was found to be in somewhat better shape than contractors expected. Cleaning and restoration of the brick face has progressed most quickly on the south façade beneath the spire.
OTTAWA — When the Rev. David Kipfer first was assigned to St. Columba Parish, he knew two things: Founded in 1838, the parish is second-oldest in Peoria Diocese, and the building itself was just plain old. His parishioners didn’t need to be reminded. The yellowish stucco veneer that covered the exterior had begun to chip and fall away and all throughout the interior were signs the historic church needed more than a little dusting and cleaning. “The parish had kind of patched and repaired some things as needed, but there was never a long-term fix,” Kipfer recalled. “When I became pastor, we said, ‘You know, we need to do something about this church and not just patch it.’” Last fall, the parish finally bit the bullet and launched a massive, three-phase renovation project starting with the exterior of the church. Workers have pulled off the stucco — and been pleasantly surprised by the generally good condition of the brick underneath — and pulled out the stained-glass windows for a deep cleaning. Mother Nature has expedited the process. The lack of snow, coupled with moderate temperatures, has enabled the construction team to work steadily through winter to where the 12-month job is now cautiously estimated to have been trimmed to 10 months. “The mild winter has been a plus, but there are aspects of the job that freezing conditions don’t allow,” said Dick Larson, president of Estes Construction, based in Davenport, Iowa. “For instance the washing of the brick can’t take place nor can any sealants be applied when the overnight temperatures dip below freezing. “Also damaged brick and mortar are being removed now but won’t be replaced until once again the overnight temps are above the freezing point.” Expected nuisances aside, Kipfer and many parishioners seem pleased with the progress. The main entrance and south façade has taken shape so the brick face is clean and sharp but also historic-looking. And while plywood covering over the windows — needed to protect the glass from construction-related breakage — keeps passersby from seeing the stained glass, these too are taking shape. Years of soot from votive candles left a deep film that needs more than Windex and elbow grease. Jacksonville Art Glass was retained to restore the windows and uses a detailed process in which they tag each individual piece to ensure correct replacement. The colors on the rejuvenated pieces are more vibrant and the artistry more appreciable. Ladson said he and a fluctuating team of 20 to 40 specialists look forward to coming to work and to restoring the church to its original glory. “Estes Construction is very excited to be a part of the restoration of such a beautiful historical landmark,” he said. “The finished product will be a source of pride for everyone involved from the tradesmen to their support and management teams.” Phase I includes replacing the church’s slate roof, which is a significant undertaking but one that Kipfer said should protect the church from above for the next century. Also being replaced are the gutters and flashings, which are made of copper and, as Ladson points out, “Not unlike the stained glass restoration, it really is an art.” “I think it’s beautiful,” Mary Mann, building secretary for adjacent Marquette Academy, said of the work so far. “I can’t wait for them to start the inside.” That’s going to be a while, however. The costs incurred so far will come to $4 million — and that’s just for Phase I. The church has yet to address two additional phases that will make improvements to the grounds and interior. The parish established a rolling capital campaign and still is welcoming pledges that are trickling in. Kipfer is among those who’ve pledged money yet to be paid. Kipfer said they proceed so because the project would have been postponed three or more years had the parish decided to raise funds first. Even with a line of credit and a better-than-expected start, the church won’t be finished for years. Kipfer said he’d like to see that project wrapped up by 2020. “I want to be the priest to finish it,” he said. “I love the parish and I would like to see the project through. “But that’s up to the bishop,” he added, “it’s not up to me.” Parishioners, meanwhile, have been patient and understanding at the sight of scaffolding, missing windows and other minor annoyances as they come in and worship. “The companies have done a great job of being aware that the church still is in use,” Kipfer said. “There have been some inconvenience of course, but that’s what happens when you do construction. “And the kids like looking up and seeing the scaffolding,” he said. “The little ones are as excited as the adults to see it happening.”