St. Patrick's Cathedral restored in time for pope's visit

| 08 Sep 2015 | 01:18

— A three-year restoration project at St. Patrick's Cathedral, the seat of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York and one of the country's most well-known churches, is coming to an end just in time for a late September visit from Pope Francis. Most of the scaffolding has already been taken down and officials are steadfast in saying it will be done in time.

The project was officially announced on St. Patrick's Day 2012 and got started soon after. It was a huge undertaking — the entire exterior was covered in scaffolding, all the way to the top of the two 330-foot-tall spires, and washed clean of decades of dirt. Scaffolding also blanketed the inside, as workers cleaned and repaired the 3,700 individual panels in 75 stained glass windows and restored the 9,200-pound bronze doors at the Fifth Ave. entrance, among other extensive renovation work.

St. Patrick's held its first Mass in 1879 and was declared a national landmark in 1976. Coming in at a price tag of $175 million, the restoration was the most extensive since the 1940s.

Some thoughts on the project from the people who worked on it:

Not your everyday worksite One tricky aspect of the project was that the cathedral stayed open to the public the entire time. That meant work being done around daily Masses and while 5 million visitors a year passed through.

“It would be a constant dance as we were moving around," said Eileen McCarthy, one of the project managers from Structure Tone, the construction company overseeing the work.

“For the most part, everything was done during the day while it was occupied, while tourists and guests and visitors were coming through, so that was always a concern, you're working in a living, breathing environment."

It was a situation that had its drawbacks and advantages: Construction workers had to learn how to use their “inside voices" but were also given a chance to interact with the public.

“People will stop and ask" about the work, she said. “It's very cool, you can explain a little bit of what's going on."

Moving momentsDoing a renovation on a church also led to some unexpected moments of grace. McCarthy remembers a time in late 2013 when she and some of the painters were up on some scaffolding above the central part of the cathedral, hidden from the view of the people down below.

“All of a sudden, a capella, was a young woman's voice, singing the 'Ave Maria,"' she said. “All of us just froze, we stopped in our tracks... That's not something you would have on a normal job site."

Perfect timing The project seemed to have the luck of the Irish. Jeff Keeley, a foreman for the scaffolding company, said it was “very uneventful," there were no safety incidents, and clear skies and good weather were on hand when they needed it. They've been “very fortunate in a lot of ways," he said, adding after thinking about it, “probably blessed."

That extends to the timing of the project's end and its high-profile visitor. Pope Francis is scheduled to be at St. Patrick's on Sept. 24 for evening prayer.

Keeley said workers were excited to find out their efforts would be seen by the head of the church.

“Sometimes you do things, and no one really cares," he said. “When the pope comes, hopefully he will care, right? He's going to look at it and say, 'Wow, this really looks good."'