By Paula Katinas
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
When the Rev. Michael Louis Gelfant arrived at St. Finbar Catholic Church in June of 2010 to take his new job as the church’s administrator, he was struck by the number of parishioners who came up to him with the same impassioned plea.
“Please fix our church!” one parishioner after another implored him
Built in 1910, the church had undergone a number of misguided renovations over the years, according to Gelfant, who said the work in the past was done in an attempt to “modernize” the beautiful old building at 138 Bay 20th St.
In one renovation in the mid-1980s, several rows of pews were removed and the altar was completely redone. One parishioner told Gelfant that the building looked more like an auditorium than a house of worship.
When he served his first Mass, he immediately understood. “I looked out from the pulpit and it just didn’t feel right,” he told the Brooklyn Eagle.
Gelfant, who was officially installed as pastor in 2011, is now turning back the clock.
The pastor, construction contractors and a group of volunteers, mostly from the parish’s Guatemalan community, are painstakingly renovating their beloved church to restore the 106-year-old building to its former glory. They began in the fall of 2015.
The work is still going on, but it progressed to the point where the upper church, which had been closed for several months, reopened on Palm Sunday.
Here’s a sampling of the work completed so far: the altar was redone complete with a new marble floor. The pews that had been removed were put back. As a result, brides getting married at St. Finbar now have a longer, more breathtaking trip up the aisle. Another aisle, running across the church from left to right, was created so that people can get from one side of the church to the other without having to walk around the perimeter.
The floor was ripped up and underneath, Gelfant and his volunteers found the church’s original wood floor. The 1910 floor is made of Douglas fir wood. It had been buried under layers of floors that had been placed one on top of another over the years.
Gelfant realized what a gem the original floor was when a man came into the church and asked him if he planned to throw the floor out. When the priest answered that he probably would trash it, the man offered to buy it. “The guy wants to buy it? That means it’s valuable. This floor is staying!” Gelfant said to himself.
There is still work to be done, including the installation of a new altar railing, repairs to the church’s interior columns, and installing new doors.
Also, an old baptismal font will be brought back. The font was donated by Fred Trump, the father of Donald Trump. The elder Trump, who was a real estate developer, gave the marble font to St. Finbar 50 years ago when he was building Shore Haven, an apartment complex in Bath Beach.
On Palm Sunday, parishioners had tears in their eyes when they walked into church and saw what had been done so far.
In addition to parishioner complaints, Gelfant was also inspired to renovate the church when he started cleaning out the church and other buildings on the property in 2010.
The annex, a one-story building next to the church, presented a challenge. “There was a door in there that was locked and we couldn’t open it,” Gelfant said. People kept telling him he wouldn’t be able to open it because it was cemented shut. He got a sledgehammer and banged the door down. “You can’t tell me I can’t do something,” he said.
Behind the door were gorgeous marble pieces that had been stored away and forgotten.
Gelfant found the blueprints from the church’s 1910 construction and decided to use that as his guide.
With help from maintenance worker Francisco Tzunun Vasquez, he put together a group of volunteers, including electricians, carpenters, painters and tile workers. “They were very dedicated. They came here every night after working all day at their jobs,” Gelfant said. “They used to joke that they were working for the Gelfant Construction Company.”
A major goal was to complete enough of the renovation so that the upper church could be opened by April when wedding season begins. “Otherwise, I’d get killed by brides!” Gelfant joked.
The pastor placed a time capsule to mark the renovation. The time capsule contains a rosary, a crucifix and images of St. Finbar and other saints. He also placed a picture of himself and his dog, Louis Ignatius Gelfant. “Louie,” as the dog is known, is a parish mascot.