Online Edition – Vol. V, No. 8: November 1999
A Different Kind of "Hands-on" Priest
"Father Fix-It" rebuilds parishes by hand
by Penny Humphrey
(Penny Humphrey originally wrote this essay for Yankee magazine, where it appeared in April 1999, entitled "Father Fix-it". It is reprinted by kind permission of the author.)
In the early summer of 1991, his car loaded with parishioners, the Reverend Edmond R. Levesque turned out of the driveway of his rectory at Saint Theresa, a trim, homey church in South Attleboro, Massachusetts, and headed for New Bedford. It was a dry run to show his old friends his new parish. They slipped onto I-95, leaving behind tree-lined streets, single-family homes, and manicured lawns. Less than an hour later, Father Levesque exited the highway and turned onto narrow Acushnet Avenue in New Bedford’s North End. His passengers stopped talking. They passed triple-decker apartment houses painted like pastel layer-cakes, Portuguese bakeries loaded with sweet breads and malasadas, and handkerchief-sized gardens blooming with flowers, tomato plants, and grape arbors. They also passed down-at-the-heel corners where drug dealers, prostitutes, and community police played cat and mouse.
Father Levesque’s destination was Saint Anthony of Padua Church at the corner of Acushnet and Nye Street. It was impossible to miss its 256-foot steeple made it the tallest structure in New Bedford. But Saint Anthony, built in 1895, was not small, bright and brick like Saint Theresa. It was massive, gloomy, and dark Springfield redstone. The steeple was visibly singed from two nearby tenement fires. Attached to the church, like an afterthought, was the rectory. The rest of Nye Street was occupied by a derelict convent and a parochial school pocked with dozens of broken windows.
His old parishioners apprehensively stepped out of the car. Patricia De Andrade, Father Levesque’s housekeeper of 14 years, looked up at the steeple and down the block, before returning to her boss. "Did you mess up with the bishop?" she asked.
No job too menial
The opposite was true. During his 35 years as a priest, Father Levesque had earned a reputation in the diocese for a different kind of hands-on ministry he rebuilt parishes with his own hands. A burly man who’d handled tools all his life, he regarded no job as too menial, too difficult, or too dirty. At Saint Theresa he tore down an abandoned church building piece by piece with a pry bar and hammer to make way for a bigger parking lot. At Our Lady of Grace in Westport, he chainsawed an acre of woods to clear space for a new parish hall, neatly dropping the trees, then bucking them into cordwood. At Saint George in Westport, he personally renovated a building rented by the parish for its parochial school, installing new electric fixtures, painting walls, and refinishing desks. For years, after saying early-morning Mass, Father Levesque drove a school bus.
His church work started early. One of 11 children growing up in Fall River, he and his seven brothers helped their father, the sexton of Notre Dame Church. When he was five, one of his brothers lowered him down a circulation vent at the Notre Dame School to brush off the dirt inside. By the time he was 15, his job was to shovel coal to keep the church’s high school warm and to sweep sawdust across Notre Dame’s vast terrazzo floor to scrub it clean.
By the time he was 60, Father Levesque was known as the priest who could fix things. That’s why Bishop Daniel A. Cronin offered him Saint Anthony in New Bedford. Unless Father Levesque could reverse a tide of decades-long neglect, debt, and dirt, the bishop said he would have to close St. Anthony in five years. "I don’t know if it can be saved," the bishop told him. "If anyone can do it, it would be you. But I don’t think you can do it."
Decades of dirt
The facts were grim. It cost $60,000 a year to heat the church, school, convent, and rectory. It cost $24,000 to insure the buildings. Saint Anthony of Padua High School had closed 20 years before, a victim of declining enrollment. In 1990 the diocese was considering closing the elementary school. The parish was down to 680 families. Only a few Holy Cross sisters, a teaching order that had served the parish since its founding, remained; most had left the school as Saint Anthony’s finances had evaporated along with tuition income.
Inside the church, a cavernous building that seats 2,000, the beauty of the Romanesque architecture was hidden behind decades of dirt. Grime tarnished the vaulted ceiling, ornate pendentive arches, towering pillars, intricately carved wood, and statues. Dirt soiled painted walls and oil paintings, including the four canvases in the very dome, 72 feet above the floor. Soot from long-closed factories had drained the luster from the elaborated stained-glass windows. Perhaps the saddest sight of all was the ornate "Vision of Saint Anthony", a 30-foot-high frieze with 32 statues six of them 10 and a half feet high that was suspended over the altar. The "Vision" was caked in dust.
But Saint Anthony still had its angels. There were hundreds of angels scattered around the church. Italian sculptor John Castagnoli, who lives on Holly Street only a block away, had carved the angels. There were 20-foot-high adoring angels, with their faces turned toward the altar to gaze at the cross. There were four towering angels of the Resurrection holding slim trumpets to announce the triumphant entry of Christ into heaven. There was a sanctuary angel holding a torch lamp next to the altar. There were musical cherubs fluttering near the choir loft and playing instruments. There were angels with gold wings, standing slim and tall on the ends of pews in the sanctuary. Their robes, which fell in folds like real cloth, made them look lifelike. Their wings made them look ethereal. Their faces made them look sweet and approachable. Their dirt made them look sorry.
Father Levesque began by hauling trash. During the early part of the day, he ministered to the spiritual needs of his parish. Late afternoon and into the night, he labored to repair the buildings. A month after he arrived, he took on bingo. He changed the menu from sandwiches to supper, which he cooked himself. He upped the stakes of the big games. Between the good food and big pots, bingo profits soared.
With the 100th anniversary of the founding of the parish approaching in 1995, he challenged parishioners to think of the future of their church. He told them that if Saint Anthony of Padua was going to survive, the congregation needed to better the place. Money started to come in. He reshingled the convent roof for $80,000, so that it could be a home for a new order, the Capuchin Recollect nuns, who pray, meditate, and beg for food.
Two years, 96 sea sponges
In September 1992, weakened by leaks in the roof, the ceiling above the side altar of Saint Anne fell in. Father Levesque, who had been working on the convent and school, decided it was time to tackle the church. Above Saint Ann’s head, a roofer patched the outside and a plasterer patched the inside. But Father Levesque couldn’t resist climbing the plasterer’s scaffolding to get a closer look. Once he was 65 feet up, Father Levesque wiped the dirt off a test patch. It looked so good that he kept going, slowly circling the interior. He washed from the floor up to the curved start of the domed ceiling. Then he washed the statues of saints and all the angels. The cleaning job took two years and eight dozen sea sponges, $7 each. Father Levesque preferred sea sponges; they did not streak and they reached into crevices. A parishioner who was a painter joined him on the scaffolding to brush on 150 gallons of paint.
An unexpected vocation
The priest could clean, but repairing the damaged artwork was beyond his powers. He convinced his housekeeper DeAndrade, 57, a mother of two, who had never worked in the field of art but loved drawing and painting, that she had the makings of an art restorer. He believed in her.
After working all day as a housekeeper, she took the narrow back passage from the rectory to the church to answer her new calling. She repainted the complex floral borders with such meticulous attention to shading and detail that they look three-dimensional. She repainted oil canvas tacked to the walls. She started repairing the smaller statues and worked her way up to the "Vision", with its mammoth array of painted figures. Like a plastic surgeon, she reconstructed the faces of the saints and angels, repainting their garments and eyes. "The paint would be hanging down in great pieces, and it was very dirty", DeAndrade recalls.
Eighty percent of the wall paintings around the side altar to Saint Joseph were gone. She restored the paintings, inch by inch. "I would do a rough outline for size. I bought graphic-art paper. I would draw it and then put it back up. We matched the colors of the paint. We were up to 37 different colors in the church."
As she painted and traced, she realized Father Levesque was right. She did have talent. And she came to believe that beyond her innate ability, she had a mission in restoring Saint Anthony’s art. "Not to get overly religious I believe, but I am not one of those on my knees every two minutes I’ve always felt that this is why I was born", DeAndrade says. "He [God] needed me. And it was a wonderful feeling to be needed."
First Communion lightups
Meantime, Father Levesque scraped the 100 oak pews and the entire oak floor before refinishing the wood. He washed 3,500 of the 5,000 lightbulbs set in the arches. The rest of the bulbs were out of reach, high up in the ceiling domes. Traditionally all the lights in the church were turned on only twice a year on Christmas and Easter days. Years ago, the church would notify the power company before throwing the switches, lest there be a brownout in the North End, but in recent years the grand illuminations revealed only the dismal state of the interior. Having restored something of the original splendor, Father Levesque added grand lightups for First Communion and confirmation to the holiday schedule. Four times a year, the effect going from dark to brilliant dawn was spectacular and moving.
After five years of work, Saint Anthony of Padua looked magnificent. As DeAndrade tells it, "Father Levesque resurrected the church from the brink of the grave." As far as the priest was concerned, the renovation was over. Only the ceiling domes were left untouched, but he was exhausted. The domes were beyond him, physically and emotionally. The necessary scaffolding to reach the domes would be too costly to rent, too time-consuming to erect, and at 72 feet above the floor across a 52-foot span, too high to work on. His climbing days were coming to an end. His knees were not what they used to be. And besides, from the ground, the domed ceilings didn’t look too bad.
Resurgence and near disaster
Meantime the renovation had fueled a resurgence; the congregation was now up to 755 families. The school and convent had been completely renovated, leaving Father Levesque time to quietly replumb the rectory himself. A parishioner talked of getting Saint Anthony included as part of the new Whaling National Park on the waterfront, a mile away. Father Levesque started thinking about retiring at 70. On June 21, 1997, he left for a ten-day vacation, telling his staff only that he would be heading to the Midwest.
Two hours later, storm clouds rolled into New Bedford. A neighbor watched in horror as a streak of lightning split the sky, striking the brass atop the church. As the highest point in New Bedford, the spire of Saint Anthony had taken direct hits many times before. This time, the lightning did not race harmlessly into the ground. The cable grounding the rods had broken, and it had not occurred to Father Levesque to check it. Now the unchanneled lightning bolt sparked a fire under the slate roof. A New Bedford firefighter who happened to be standing near the church quickly called in the alarm, and engines arrived within minutes. The blaze was confined to the roof and, amazingly, did not spread. "It was as though there was this protective hand," Patricia DeAndrade says.
The worst damage was caused by accident. A firefighter walking on the roof put his foot through the roof and ceiling below, creating two holes.
Ten days later, a rested Father Levesque returned and found two messages. One was from the insurance adjuster, offering a $21,000 settlement. The second, Father Levesque felt, was from a higher authority. "The lightning rekindled the spark that I needed to go on with the project", Father Levesque recalls. "It was providential. It was like God speaking to us, telling us, ‘Hey, let’s complete the job’".
Father Levesque rented enough scaffolding to climb to the domes to wash the remaining 1,500 light bulbs himself and to help professional painters clean before they painted the bays. Patricia DeAndrade climbed up, too, to repair the art.
God willing, Father Levesque, now 70, will celebrate Easter Mass this month under a fully cleaned, five-domed ceiling, scattered with stars and cherubs and crowned by a winged dove the Holy Spirit hovering against radiant clouds. The waxed pews will be filled with parishioners, smiling and looking up at the cleaned and restored glory of their church. Looking down on it all will be the angels of Saint Anthony of Padua. Father Levesque estimates there are 700 angels, but he doesn’t know for sure. Someday, Father Levesque says, he really must count the angels.
In recognition of his work at St. Anthony’s, Father Levesque was made a Monsignor on September 1st, 1999. Editor
Copyright 1999 Penny Humphrey.