- The Washington Times - Monday, October 13, 2003

GALVESTON, Texas — John Pistone stands on a bench in the church choir loft with a flashlight in one hand. He uses a key in his other hand to tap on the edge of an inch-long distortion among several that pockmark a white wall.

“There’s one,” Mr. Pistone said as a tiny termite briefly poked out its head before fleeing back into the darkness — and dinner.

The wood-munching insect is only one problem afflicting the 155-year-old St. Mary’s Cathedral Basilica, the mother church of all 15 Catholic dioceses in Texas. Without repairs and the money to pay for them, Mr. Pistone fears, the church could fall.

“You can only do so much and then you have to leave it in the hands of the Lord,” said Mr. Pistone, administrator of the church consecrated Nov. 26, 1848.

Repairs could require at least $5.5 million, even as one of the nation’s foremost restoration architects lends his support.

“It’s a real important church. It is fixable. And I certainly would like to see that happen,” said Joseph K. Oppermann, a restoration architect based in Winston-Salem, N.C. But “it’s going to be a challenge getting the money.”

Like so many other churches, St. Mary’s has a place in Mr. Oppermann’s heart. It was the church his family attended as he grew up in Galveston and it was where he and his four brothers attended school.

“It’s kind of a homecoming,” he said. “I know the family from the 1860s is in the church records. It has great significance to me.”

Designated by Pope John Paul II as the first basilica in Texas, St. Mary’s is in trouble after surviving countless storms, including the great hurricane of 1900 — when more than 6,000 died in the nation’s deadliest natural disaster — and even a Civil War battle.

Besides the Formosan subterranean termites, a scourge ravaging buildings along the Gulf of Mexico coast, crumbling brick, antiquated electrical wiring, mold, wood rot and structural sagging are responsible for cracking walls and buckling brilliant stained-glass windows. Two of the three towers that anchor the church are in danger of toppling.

Mr. Pistone estimates that he needs $1.5 million for emergency repairs, like shoring up the towers and putting on a new roof, and at least another $4 million to make all the other repairs “to do the job right.”

That is a tall order for a church with only 180 to 200 families as regular members, plus tourists who frequent Galveston.

So far, they have raised about $200,000.

“We’ve raised that without really trying,” said the Rev. John LaBauve, an 80-year-old missionary summoned out of retirement in Louisiana five years ago to serve at St. Mary’s. “When we tell [tourists] the history of the church, we get something from them. We open the mail and get a $500 check, a $1,000 check.”

Mr. Pistone wants to target Texas’ 4 million Catholics in raising funds for the repairs, although the Rev. Joseph Fiorenza, bishop of the Diocese of Galveston-Houston, where about 1.1 million Catholics live, doesn’t appear ready to endorse such a campaign.

“While the diocese had provided some funding to the parish, we still need to seek help from foundations and other generous donors to help us preserve this venerable church that is such an important part of our history,” Bishop Fiorenza said.

Construction at St. Mary’s began in 1847 — 17 months after the Republic of Texas became a state — with 500,000 bricks from Belgium. Many of those bricks, supported by rough-hewn Louisiana cedar, now can crumble with the touch of a finger.

The church is in the traditional form of the Latin cross, adorned with marble statues and dark wood pews that will seat about 400 worshippers. Countless burned candles and incense used during ceremonies over the decades have left lingering scents. A creaking 28-step staircase, its water-stained red carpet flecked with falling paint chips, spirals up one of two 80-foot towers and leads to the choir loft, where 3,000 organ pipes line the back wall.

Atop another tower over the sanctuary since 1878 is a cast-iron statue of the Virgin Mary, Star of the Sea. The lighted crown once served as a beacon for mariners looking for Galveston, which until being wiped out by the 1900 storm was the largest city in the Southwest and the commercial center of Texas.

Lesley Sommer, director of preservation and conservation services for the Galveston Historical Foundation, calls the church a “one-of-a-kind structure” significant to the city and state’s history.

“This is a structure pre-1850 and we really don’t have very many in that category that are documented,” he said.

Mr. Pistone said he sometimes locks all the doors and just sits in the church, soaking up the ambiance and praying for help.

“Lord, I lay it at your feet; you do the rest,” he said. “I may not live to see it completed, but at least I’ll see it start to be done.”

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