STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. — The rebuilding of the chapel at St. Joseph’s Hill Academy, Arrochar, is a labor of love for Sal Tirro and a test of courage and hope for the Daughters of Divine Charity, whose religious lives and fond memories are bound up with the site.
Tirro, president of Tircon General Contractor, has undertaken to restore the chapel and portions of the convent. The chapel was destroyed in an Oct. 12 arson fire that forced Sister Regina Gegic, the convent’s administrator, to make a desperate three-story jump from a bathroom window. Four firefighters were also injured.
Early Thursday evening, Tirro was on site noting the extensive work that would have to be done to get the chapel, built in 1919, and the portions of the adjourning pre-civil war former mansion back into shape.
“The driving force of the project,” said Tirro, “is to rebuild the chapel for the sisters and to restore it as best we can to make it historically correct.”
The work will not be easy: The flames devoured paintings and religious artwork. Seven stained glass windows were damaged and the two sacristies completely burned. The first floor of the convent had some water damage and there was a small fire on the third floor. Tirro said the entire building was electrically rewired. New sheetrock, painting and refinishing of the building’s elaborate woodwork will be needed.
Tirro added that a crucifix and a small statue of the Blessed Mother were destroyed; a small statue of St. Joseph may be restored. He said restoring the artwork will easily cost $250,000.
“It was very high-quality museum artwork,” said Tirro. “Everything was elaborately done. It was like a mini-cathedral.”
Tirro said the building renovations are likely in excess of $1 million, and artisans will have to be called in to handle restoration of the elaborate detailing and artwork.
But while the building can be restored, the pain of what has happened is still fresh.
“People were appalled at the damage that was done,” said Beth Johnson, director of development for the Daughters of Divine Charity, “but they’ve just responded. People sent donations. They are interested and it’s going to be back. … And with Sal’s work, sooner than we can think about.”
Tirro said his aim is to have the building fit for Christmas midnight mass.
“It is the sisters who suffered turmoil and suffered terrible trauma because many of them made vows in that chapel,” noted Sister M. William McGovern, provincial superior of the order’s Holy Family Province. “[The chapel] was the heart of the home.”
Sister William stressed that the building “will never be what it was, but we are going to try to replicate it as much as we can.” She noted they have full faith Tirro will get the job done right.
“We will get there,” she said. “This is the challenge that God gave us.”
The nuns invite the public to their St. Joseph’s Day Mass and Potluck on March 19. There will be a 4:30 p.m. mass in the school auditorium, followed by potluck dinner at 5:30 p.m. in the convent. Donations are welcome. Those wishing to bring dishes for the potluck should drop them off at the convent before mass.
Photos courtesy of the SI Advance