Where angels fear to tread: Expert climbers repair East Liberty church's roof

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With copper panels dropping from its steeples and persistent vandals tearing plywood off its windows, the SS. Peter and Paul Roman Catholic Church in East Liberty needed an angel when its owner spotted a roofer atop a church in Oakland several years ago.

The Rev. Kenneth Stevenson had bought the East Liberty relic -- church, school and rectory on Larimer Avenue -- in 1997, hoping to start a charter school there. But he said he was stymied by vandalism and a wholesale theft of its interior features and stained glass windows.

"When I saw John working on that roof, I thought, 'That might be my guy.' "

He didn't know it at the time, but John Zolko, a metal roofer, is also a weekend climber with the Pittsburgh Explorers Club.

"We're the same people who rappel off the observation deck on Mount Washington to clean up the hillsides every year," Mr. Zolko said.

On Saturday, three members of the club seized on the chance for a rare type of urban climb. With Mr. Zolko and two other contractors supervising, they dangled from the steeples to install white titanium underlay roofing over the exposed wood lath and what's left of the copper panels.

The Explorers Club will work Saturday, or next Sunday in case of rain, to complete the job.

Rev. Stevenson, who grew up in East Liberty, said the club's participation is "a win-win" because it is a volunteer effort that will stabilize the top of the church so renovation can begin. And it's what members of the Explorers Club live for on weekends.

"We love to climb every weekend that we can, and the opportunity for an urban climb like this is hard to come by," Mr. Zolko said.

On a more serious level, he said, the roof reinforcement "is phase one to satisfy the city." With copper panels falling from such a height -- the towers are 180 feet high -- the public safety concerns raised the threat of demolition. The church is on the National Register of Historic Places and was a setting for the 1999 film "Dogma," starring Matt Damon and Ben Affleck.

"That titanium will seal it, and I think this will be the kickoff that spurs more incentive to help this church," Mr. Zolko said. "We'll get a sign up: 'Help restore the cathedral.' "

The church, part of which was built in 1857 and part in 1890, was vacated by its congregation in 1992 when five parishes merged.

Rev. Stevenson, founder of the Everlasting Covenant Church in Beacon, N.Y., said he bought the property for $90,000 and has put that much into it. When he was unable to use the church property for his charter school, he rented space for it in the former YMCA in East Liberty. The charter ran from 2003 to 2008.

He said he expects the renovation of the church property to cost as much as $500,000.

"My view was to give something back," said Rev. Stevenson. He initially used the church to build an Everlasting Covenant congregation here, with an emphasis on outreach to youth. "We had a growing congregation of 75 to 100 members before the big theft" in 2001.

Most of the interior pieces that were stolen, including pews, windows and pulpit, were found and returned, he said.

Rev. Stevenson returned to his home in LaGrangeville, N.Y., after the charter was not renewed.

East Liberty Development Inc. is studying the feasibility of the church's reuse to determine best use of the three buildings and the costs in making them usable.

Mr. Zolko's work on the roof at Third Presbyterian Church in Oakland in 2007 not only got Rev. Stevenson's attention but was featured on the cover of Metal Roofing magazine.

His work on the church in East Liberty had more of the derring-do about it, but he said the Explorers Club takes no risks and won't work if it is windy.

"We have lots of safety devices and ropes wrapped around a huge center beam, like this," he said, putting his arms around a tree thicker than a telephone pole across the street. "A structural engineer confirmed that those towers are in no danger of blowing over. They are all reinforced. Those old churches were built to last."

The well-roped climbers dangled down the side of the bell towers through large louvers in the side. Other climbers behind parapets roped the underlay material up to them. He estimated that the roofing installation alone would cost $8,000 if it weren't being provided for free.


Diana Nelson Jones: djones@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1626. Read her blog City Walkabout at www.post-gazette.com/citywalk.


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