AUSTIN (KXAN) - Father Albert Laforet was just doing his job, celebrating Mass at downtown Austin's historic Roman Catholic St. Mary's Cathedral , when word reached him of a near disaster outside the church.
"One of my homeless people who kind of we take care of, kind of in a little way, was outside," said the priest, "and a mother was comforting a baby.
"And his name is Darrell and Darrell said, 'Father a rock fell down and almost hit that lady.'
"And I said, 'Darrell, where'd that come from?'
"'I don't know; it was way up there, Father.'
"And so, 'Oh, that's not good,' you know, kind of thing. That doesn't look good. We shouldn't have rocks falling from our church."
Church officials quickly found a nearby tall building and looked down at the cathedral's roof. They were horrified to see big pieces of limestone littering the roof below the bell towers.
"We had about 30 stones scheduled to be fixed," Father Laforet said, "and that turned into about 100 of them. The masons could actually take the rocks and literally take the pieces off by hand. They didn't have to use any (tools)."
Protective scaffolding was immediately installed and plans were laid for repairs. Parishioner Richard Miscoe of Miscoe Builders and Developers was brought in to handle the project.
But then the news got even worse. Miscoe's crew discovered that the spires atop the bell towers were also failing and the decorative finials atop them could come crashing down.
One finial, in particular, on the west tower, was not even anchored.
"There was no steel reinforcement in it," Father Laforet said. "We thought it would take about a week to dissemble that because there was a lot of bad stone in that particular part.
"They took the finial off and then started to take the stones off. It took them two hours and they came shaking down saying, 'This whole thing could have fallen on somebody because there was nothing holding this up.
"That was probably the most frightening part for our masons, was that west tower because that's right on that intersection of Tenth and Brazos. It's a very busy intersection for pedestrians. There's a bus stop there."
But even when there was steel inside the spires, the surrounding stone was still failing.
"The steel that they used back then when they built this in the late 1800s," explained mason Brian Ash of Ash Masonry Masterworks , "was just regular steel. It rusted naturally. Water would infiltrate through the mortar joints and through the stone and as it filtered down into the stone, it would keep the steel wet and damp.
"So it would start rusting and expanding. Over the 100 years or a long period of time, as it expands it would push the stone outward and actually pop it. So we had several pieces that had broken loose."
The fix involved replacing the failing stone on the façade of the church and dismantling and rebuilding the spires, this time anchoring them with stainless steel rods.
But not only is the cathedral fixed, it is now restored.
When the church was first constructed in the 1870s and 80s, it had no bell towers at all. They were added, according to Father Laforet, in 1906. Two or three decades later, the decorative finials atop the spires were for some unknown reason, replaced with plain caps.
So, when the recent repairs were being made, workers followed the original plans and recreated the original finials.
No one would be more pleased about that than Nicholas J. Clayton , the Irish-American architect from Galveston, who designed the church. He also designed many important Texas homes, churches and public buildings, including Bishop's Palace in Galveston, Sacred Heart Cathedral in Dallas and the main building at St. Edward's University in Austin.
But after some legal issues following the deadly and destructive 1900 Galveston hurricane , Clayton went bankrupt and died a penniless pauper in 1916.
The architect would also likely be thrilled to learn that almost a century later, the repairs on St. Mary's would include fashioning the finials out of strong terracotta ceramic clay instead of limestone.
"It's safe for hundreds of years now instead of just 100 years," Ash, the mason, said.
Of course, everything around the cathedral is different now. When it was first built, the only other significant structure in the entire area was the State Capitol, itself.
"It's a beautiful Austin landmark," Father Laforet said. "It's been here since the 1870s, 1880s, you know, and you just want everyone to enjoy our beautiful city.
"And this is just a beautiful crown in the rest of the beautiful architecture here in downtown Austin. We just wanted to do our best to really make sure that we did everything as historic as possible.
"We take what we have and we hand it on to the next generation; that's kind of a very Catholic thing. You pass down from child to child to child to child, every generation. We pass on our faith to the next generation."
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