Lowell church gets a facelift

byDonis Tracy Pilot Correspondent

Cardinal O'Malley celebrates a Feb. 27 Mass at Immaculate Conception Church in Lowell to mark the church's restoration. Pilot photo courtesy/O'Connor Studios

LOWELL -- It isn't every day that a church gets a facelift.

But that is exactly what Immaculate Conception Church in Lowell has gotten -- and Father Nicholas Sannella, pastor at Immaculate Conception, cannot be happier.

"We were able to do everything that we wanted to. We cut no corners, and now everyone who comes can't believe how wonderful it all is," Father Sannella said.

According to Father Sannella, the renovation was necessary because years of use had taken its toll on the building's structure. Immaculate Conception had been built in the 1870s, and although a study was conducted that determined the structure was sound, there was water damage to its granite exterior, the roof was leaky, the pews uncomfortable. Then, in 2010 a huge chunk of plaster fell from the ceiling in the nave of the church, crashing on the pews below.

"We were very fortunate that the church was empty when that happened," recounted Father Sannella. "Knowing how dangerous it was, we were forced to close the upper church and began to use only the lower church."

Father Sannella then began looking for bids to restore the church. Many companies were willing to take on the project, but their bids were "quite high," he said.

Unable to afford the renovations, Father Sannella turned to Cardinal Seán P. O'Malley for advice. The cardinal suggested he call Deacon Thomas Palanza, permanent deacon at St. Mary Church in Mansfield. Deacon Palanza is the founder of Palanza Group, Inc. -- a construction company that for over 20 years has specialized in the planning, design and construction of ecclesiastical properties.

"(The cardinal) said, 'Call him. You need him.' And so I did; and I really did need him," Father Sannella said with a chuckle.

After speaking with Deacon Palanza, Father Sannella and the entire parish pastoral council took a field trip to Fall River to see some of the churches restored by Palanza Group.

What they saw impressed every single one of them, he recalled. Palanza Group was asked to take on the renovation.

"I first suggested (Father Sannella) concentrate on the exterior of the church. Once the roof was replaced and the exterior granite was restored, then we began our work inside the building," Deacon Palanza explained.

Heeding his advice, Father Sannella contracted Folan Waterproofing and Construction to fix the granite exterior and replace the slate roof.

With the exterior completed, Deacon Palanza and his group of 8 employees set about restoring the interior. The plaster was all removed, replaced with an exact replica made of a urethane foam -- a much less heavy alternative. In addition, the entire infrastructure of the church was updated -- a new heating system was added, air conditioning was put in, the church was made handicapped accessible.

But the renovation did not stop there. All the old pews were removed and replaced with contoured, cushioned pews. Energy efficient lighting turned the once-dark church into a bright, welcoming structure. New, stately doors were also installed.

"They had aluminum store-front doors like you would have at a Cumberland Farms," Deacon Palanza explained. "That was a real pet peeve for Father."

Perhaps the most unexpected renovation, one Father Sannella is incredible grateful for, is a new Stations of the Cross installed in the upper church.

"The former ones were inconsistent with the decor of the church. They just didn't fit," he said. Realizing this, Deacon Palanza was able to salvage one from a closed church in Fall River.

According to Deacon Palanza, each station weighed approximately 280 pounds. These were cut from the walls of the shuttered church, crated and transported to Immaculate Conception. He and his workers then installed them by cutting into the walls of the church and adding reinforcements to sustain the weight.

"They are just magnificent," Father Sannella said, adding "I cannot tell you how impressed I have been by Tom and the group of men who work with him. These are men who know the Church, who love the Church. It's just been wonderful."

Father Sannella also was quick to note that the entire project cost $7.1 million, a fraction of what other construction companies had bid. He hopes to add an elevator in the future, although he does not have a clear timetable of when that will be.

When asked how his parishioners have reacted to the newly opened upper church, he responded, "Everyone tells me what a good job I've done." He then added with a laugh, "Me? All these wonderful people have made me look good!"