A 1,000-pound bell rang out from the west tower of St. Joseph Church in the Butchertown neighborhood before the parish’s newly renovated twin steeples and spires were blessed by Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz March 20.
Close to 300 parishioners and visitors gathered around the front steps on the crisp March morning before processing into Mass through the front doors, which had been reopened following 16 months of construction.
Archbishop Kurtz presided at the blessing and Mass, part of a “Celebration of the Steeples” event at the Butchertown parish to mark the completion of a $2.4 million renovation of the church’s twin steeples and their iconic spires.
He welcomed the congregation, which included Hispanic and non-Hispanic parishioners, as well as Ursuline Sisters, who taught at the former school.
The archbishop noted that even though it’s the Lenten season, it was a day to say “Alleluia,” and the packed church responded with one voice, “Alleluia!”
“This is a big day in the life of your parish,” said Archbishop Kurtz. “There’s renewal at St. Joseph Church.”
St. Joseph Church and the former school were built in 1866 and served German-speaking families, many of whom worked in the slaughterhouses and butcher shops that gave the neighborhood its name. The school, staffed by Ursuline Sisters, closed in 2003.
Due to a lack of funds when the church was built, the steeples — which rise 175 feet into the downtown sky — were built 40 years after the church, according to historical records from the Archdiocese of Louisville’s archives.
About 10 years ago, when the more than 100-year-old steeples started showing signs of disrepair, long-time parishioner Jeffrey Oeswein, a member of the parish’s finance council, said parishioners started discussing repairs. At that time, he said, they had no idea how much work needed to be done.
It turned out to be a 16 month-project that required more than 25,000 hours to complete.
The work started in August 2020 and concluded in December 2021, said Bill Zoeller, who serves as director of facilities for the archdiocese. Zoeller, who closely monitored the project, said the damage to the steeples was extensive. Over time, termites had eaten away at the wooden structures that compose the spires, he said. Engineers spent three months determining how to repair the damage. The steeples and spires are a “German engineering feat well worth preserving,” he noted.
Oeswein, who’s been a parishioner for close to 20 years, said it’s always a good feeling driving up to church on Sunday mornings and seeing the sun reflecting off the spires.
He was married at St. Joseph and his young daughter was baptized there. The renovation was “personal” to him, he said.
Oeswein, an engineer, did not work on the project, but kept a close eye on it and shared the progress with parishioners via social media, he said.
“I know how much it meant to the people. There’s such a deep pride in the church and building and knowing it’s an icon to the city,” he said. “I wanted to make sure it was done right. I have a lot of good memories there.”
In addition to 25,500 construction hours, the project required 16 tons of slate and close to 57,000 pounds of scaffolding to support the crew and construction materials, Oeswein said.
Zoeller said the wooden structure inside the spires was repaired and some parts were replaced with concrete.
The spires’ roofs were covered with new slates. The crosses atop the spires were not touched because “they were in great shape,” he said. The bricks on the steeples and the church’s north face were repointed and sealed against moisture.
Work on the north face (the front of the church) also included the repair of the rose window, the parish’s largest stained glass window. The windows directly above the front doors were also replaced.
A lifesize statue of St. Joseph that stands above the rose window was removed from its niche and refurbished as well. Some tiles on the church’s roof were also replaced.
Funds for the $2.4 million renovation came from parishioners, the wider community and the Archdiocese of Louisville.
Father David Sánchez, a former pastor, helped raise funds by walking the Camino de Santiago, known in English as the Way of St. James, in the summer of 2018.
Oeswein said Father Sánchez’s pilgrimage was “hugely instrumental” in getting the community to donate to the campaign.
Father John Burke, who has served as the parish’s administrator pro tempore since December, said the renovated spires are an “outward sign of a very vibrant community” and he prays they are an “outward sign of something that will happen on a deeper level.”
When people in the community marvel at the renovated steeples, he’d also like to hear them say, “Wow, look at the people, what a faithful, caring and loving parish it is,” he said.
The parish is still raising funds for the renovation. To contribute, checks may be made to St. Joseph, indicated for the “Steeples Fund” in the memo line, and mailed to 1406 E. Washington St., Louisville, Ky., 40206.