There’s a great big crucifix atop the Shrine of Our Lady of Martyrs Coliseum in Auriesville, and it’s leaning.
It’s not a dramatic tilt, just a few degrees, but according to the shrine’s director, it’s not a good sign.
“It’s copper,” the Rev. George Belgarde said, “and it’s really heavy.”
The leaning crucifix is just the tip of a potential $600,000 iceberg of structural problems that could close the building if left unchecked.
Belgarde strolled around the shrine grounds Wednesday afternoon. It’s the off-season, so the place was pretty much empty. He unlocked the tall coliseum doors so pilgrims and passersby could stop in and light candles for loved ones, then stepped inside and started down a laundry list of issues.
“You can see the water damage,” he said, pointing at stained bits of ceiling that had fallen or are in danger of falling. “We need a new roof. We don’t want any of the water-damaged stuff to fall on people.”
The coliseum is a great round structure capable of seating 8,000 people with standing room for 2,000 more. It has a three-tiered design with three separate roofs and rows of windows in between, all held up by steel girders.
A few repairs were made over the years, but mostly the echoing vault is unchanged since its 1930 completion.
It was an ambitious project for what Belgarde termed “a simple place of prayer,” but at the time, he said, materials and labor were both incredibly cheap.
“It was the Depression,” he said. “People worked for very little money.”
Now things are expensive. Replacing the roof, repairing rotting sections of the interior and switching out a total of 72 third-story 1930s windows will cost more than $500,000. Then there’s the matter of craning the crucifix back to an upright position.
The degradation comes at a time, Belgarde said, when the shrine is essentially broke. The land might be the historical home of four saints — Isaac Jogues, John Lalande and Rene Goupil, all Jesuit missionaries martyred on the grounds centuries ago, along with the recently canonized Kateri Tekakwitha, who was born within yards of the deteriorating coliseum — but that fact doesn’t attract a lot of cash.
The shrine isn’t a conventional church, so there are no regular tithes coming in. With fewer visitors every season, the Jesuit Province has been footing roughly 80 percent of operating costs for years.
“They’ve let us know they’re not paying for the repairs,” he said.
Last year, when Kateri was sainted, roughly 15,000 people congregated at the shrine. Donations filled garbage bags, but Belgrade said it added up to only $21,000, less than $1.50 per person.
“You can’t run a 600-acre shrine on pocket change,” said Joe Caruso. The Saratoga businessman and former radio station owner is a regular at the shrine.
When he noticed the dilapidation, he approached Belgarde with plans for a yearlong, $1 million fundraiser.
The fundraiser will start in the spring as the shrine begins its regular season. Caruso said he plans to foot the bill for direct mailings to area Catholics, then begin a series of fundraising events and radio/TV fundraisers.
“I think when Catholics see the need,” he said, “they’ll give.”
He completed a similar drive at the shrine in 2000, but the nearly $1 million raised then was spent within a few months on repairs to the grounds.
The 2014 fundraiser, aside from refurbishing the coliseum, will bolster the shrine’s upkeep and repair account, which Belgarde said is critically low.
“There was mismanagement under previous leadership,” he said.
When he took over several years ago, shrine payroll totaled $300,000 a year.
“I cut it by half,” he said, “and it turned out we didn’t need such a large staff. This is just a simple place of prayer.”
If the money spent on payroll had been put into the facilities, he said, there wouldn’t be $600,000 worth of water damage.
If the shrine reaches the $1 million goal next year, nearly half of the money will be set aside for future upkeep projects, such as replacing rusty water lines to shrine facilities and bringing electrical systems up to code.
“If we as Catholics don’t fund this,” Caruso said, “the coliseum and eventually the whole shrine will be closed for safety reasons. Kateri took her first steps somewhere around here. We need this place to stay open.”