Virginia City church to close for restoration work

BRAD HORN/Nevada Appeal St. Mary in the Mountains  on the corner of F and Taylor streets in Virginia City is seen on Friday. The historic church will close as soon as next month for up to nine months while being restored.

BRAD HORN/Nevada Appeal St. Mary in the Mountains on the corner of F and Taylor streets in Virginia City is seen on Friday. The historic church will close as soon as next month for up to nine months while being restored.

St. Mary in the Mountains Roman Catholic Church will close for repairs this fall so that the building can be retrofitted and stabilized.

Rev. Matthew Cunningham, chancellor for the Diocese of Reno, said that although the exact dates are not yet confirmed, experts have been studying what the building's needs are and when work begins the church will have to close.

"We will have a definite answer by Labor Day," he said. "We will know then specifically what's going to happen."

Parishioner Virgil Bucchianeri said he heard an announcement during a recent Mass that the church would not be usable starting Aug. 23.

But Cunningham said nothing was decided for certain, though he added the closure could last up to nine months. He estimated St. Mary was the home church to 40 or 50 families, though it does not have a regular priest.

He also said that although the diocese is talking with other churches in the area about holding Masses at their facilities, no decision had been made.

Cunningham said he had asked church administrator Nick Nicosia to prepare the museum to be taken out of the church so that work can begin. A museum and wine cellar occupy the church's basement, and a gift shop operates on the first floor. The church is open year round.

The chancellor did not know how many tourists visit St. Mary, but said "they have a lot of visitors every single year."

Nicosia estimated the church receives between 2,000 and 4,500 visitors a month, depending on the season, and they come from all 50 states and more than 60 countries.

"Over the years there has been damage to the building from snow and ice and those sorts of things," Cunningham said. "We need to make a little bit of changes to make sure damage doesn't get worse."

Cunningham said the most important part is stabilizing the church, and while that is going on there may be some further restoration work. How much is done depends on what the architects and contractors decide, he said.

Cunningham said that a National Park Service Save America's Treasures grant awarded in December was "in the mix" of financial options to pay for the work.

According to Nicosia, monks who managed the church in the late 1950s thought it to be too ornate, and stripped the interiors, in the process causing structural damage that now will cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to repair.

He has said the church, built in the 1860s, is one of the oldest in Nevada.

The church was built in the 1860s and burned in Virginia City's great fire of 1875, but was rebuilt a year later.

Bucchianeri said he didn't recall the church being closed before.

He said the church had sewer problems and roof problems, but the main work is stabilizing the steeple.

"There's a lot of work to be done there," he said. "It's leaking under the steeple every time it rains heavy or the wind blows from the southwest. People have gone up there over the years and have never been able to fix that leak."

He said he would like to see the choir loft, which used to hold the walls up, restored.

"They couldn't use it for music, but it would look nice," he said. "And restore the blue ceiling. They used to have a sky-blue ceiling with gold stars. I'd like to see something visible. I hope they don't spend it all on stuff you can't see."

Bucchianeri said steel braces were installed after the monks left in the late 1950s to shore up the building and they were covered with swimming pool plaster.

"There was a joke that St. Mary's was the only church you could fill with water and not hurt it too much," he said.

Contact reporter Karen Woodmansee at kwoodmansee@nevadaappeal.com or call 881-7351.

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