By Saturday afternoon, after 162 years on Wapping Street, the last piece of the Good Shepherd Church and School will have left downtown.
With it will have gone the last of the Catholic presence in downtown Frankfort, save only a charity run by church volunteers on Wallace Avenue.
The new Good Shepherd Church on U.S. 421 in eastern Franklin County has been operating for 15 years. It is a building of modern style with white and gray brick and lots of glass and angles. The tiered slopes of the sanctuary’s roof resemble a Chinese fan unfolding to the sky, and on the tip of the highest ridge the bells hang from brick trestles.
In the adjacent Parish Life Center, completed in 2007, 160 Good Shepherd students from 3-year-old preschoolers to 8th-graders jostle in and out of the banquet hall, which serves as their cafeteria. It is Grandparents’ Day, so young and old are sharing tables in the cacophonous room as the new principal, Sharon Bresler, wipes down a table and talks about moving into the new school being built next door. The school will be completed next month.
“The teachers are counting the days,” says Bresler, a decorated educator who taught for 12 years and was a principal for 13 years at the state’s Covington diocese. Students are currently learning in classrooms downstairs and modulars – trailers designed for education – out back.
Next week the students – and parishioners, if Bresler gets her wish – will get to write their names in the concrete of the new school. By the end of the November, they will be playing in a new gym. Both will be powered by geothermal energy.
But why build these new buildings? Sister Lenore Thomas repeatedly says that “you’ve just got to see the old buildings to understand” as she gives a tour of the new offices being readied for the staff.
At the old four-story middle school building on Wapping Street – which was built in 1922 and is certainly not powered by geothermal energy – the atmosphere is much different. Between the Justice Todd House and Catfish Alley and the old church and noisy construction on the Franklin County Judicial Center, only nine staff members remain in a building that has seen better decades. They have been the only ones here for the past two years since the school moved out and daily masses stopped at the church next door.
They are packing boxes of files, art and other objects in brightly colored offices that were once classrooms for students of all ages. Good Shepherd taught high schoolers through the 1970s, and all grades occupied the same building. Father Charles Howell is now in the former Spanish room – “Espanol” is painted in big letters outside the door – where portraits of Christ stand against walls decorated with Aztec-looking animals. A broken statue of Saint Anthony with a headless child stands in a room across the hall.
Kristen Loxley, who coordinates development and stewardship and is helping organize the move, is in the former library, a particularly arresting room of lime green walls with yellow trim. The library used to be filled with stuffed animals, but now only a pig – albeit a giant one won by a student at Six Flags – remains.
“We’ve been told not to get rid of it,” said Terri Pelosi, the transition coordinator and head of the move. Loxley said the staff wondered why they still had some of these things.
The staff offices were formerly in bedrooms in the rectory before it was bulldozed along with the 1960s-era elementary school building and the gym. The move from large offices and classrooms to small offices at the new location will require adjustment, Loxley and Pelosi said, but they’ll appreciate having all of the church in the same location. They repeat that the theme of the church is “one family, one home,” and on Saturday they will finally accomplish it.
They say the church has outgrown this location – Good Shepherd now has around 800 families. The area off U.S. 421, on its own street called Shepherd Way, is also far from the downtown construction, has better parking, is safer for the children and gives them room for a soccer field and other places to play.
But that doesn’t mean they won’t miss Wapping Street and the sight of their classically designed church from their new building, which has no traditional steeple.
“The presence of our church steeple, I think, will always be embedded in all of us,” Pelosi said. “It’s pointing up to heaven saying we’re all in this together.”
Pelosi said the church will continue to serve the downtown area through the charity, the St. Vincent of DePaul Society. Howell will continue to work with the downtown ministers and students will constantly return to the area for activities, she added. Loxley said the move was bittersweet, especially after 162 years, but the purpose of the church won’t change.
“I see my mission as to serve the people of Franklin County, so for me it doesn’t matter what part of Franklin County or where they are,” Loxley said.
“We won’t forget downtown,” Pelosi said.
Howell said that there were concerns that the church, after leaving downtown, wouldn’t continue to serve the poor. But he said there were different definitions of poverty – that of spirit as well as physical possessions – and that he had served both at the new location.
He said many families now come to him straight off Interstate 64 and U.S. 60 seeking shelter, medical assistance, food and other needs. He even helped a Romanian family on its way to New York last week.
“Wherever you go, the poor you have with you always,” Howell said. “That’s Jesus’ words.”
The school building is currently on the market for $600,000, and the lot that formerly held the gym is up for $300,000. Howell said the old church building itself is not for sale at this time, though selling is a primary option. The bishop of the Lexington diocese controls all church property, so the future ultimately rests with him.
Howell said it wasn’t good for fellowship for the parish to have two worship places, and financially it was unsustainable. Sunday mass ended at the old church shortly after the new one was finished in 1997, and two years ago Howell ended daily mass on Wapping Street.
A plan to turn the church, built in 1850, into an arm of the Capital City Museum fell through in August due to budget constraints, according to Jim McCarty, co-director of the Department of Parks, Recreation and Historic Sites. The city would have had to spend at least $12,000 building new restrooms at the site, McCarty said, and also would have been responsible for insurance and maintenance. Under that plan, the church would have been leased to museum for only $1. Howell didn’t know what the church would sell for now if it went on the market.
“The bones are great,” Howell said of the old buildings. “The muscles need to be worked out.”
Howell and Pelosi both said they just wanted to see the buildings used for a dignified purpose, which Howell said may include preserving the church and the skyline or serving the city’s needs.
Whatever the case, volunteers will have emptied the buildings by this Sunday’s mass at the new church. Professional movers will have removed the heart of the church, the fire safe containing the church’s long sacramental history – baptism, communion, confirmation, last rites and other records – of its many members.
But Howell said a church is made up of people and not merely a structure. That’s not to say that the building, which Howell said is still sacred to many members, isn’t important.
He made sure to leave the bell tower clanging every morning, noon and evening for the Angelus prayers. The bells will continue to sound until the church falls into new hands, and hopefully even after.
“I can hear the bells all the way from my house,” Howell said.