FRANKFORT — When Good Shepherd Catholic Church and School moved to a new suburban campus in 2011, many people worried about what would happen to its former site, a downtown landmark since before the Civil War.
First, the old church was in the way of construction for the Franklin County Judicial Center, which took out the school gymnasium next door. In the end, the church wasn't harmed, but the Judicial Center wrapped it on two sides.
Then there was a lack of maintenance. Water seeped through brick, damaging plaster and endangering the church's structural integrity. Roof leaks caused sections of the heart-pine floors to rot. A tree sprouted from the bell-tower steeple.
The Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation listed Good Shepherd on its 2013 "eleven at the eleventh hour" list of Central Kentucky historic buildings in danger of demolition after plans fell through to convert it into a museum.
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"That building has been threatened for years, and there was a lot of concern that we were going to lose it," said Craig Potts, executive director of the Kentucky Heritage Council and the state's historic preservation officer.
"I was particularly concerned," he added. "I was married in that church and live just a few doors down from it."
Unlike some other recent preservation stories, this one seems headed toward a happy ending. Joe Dunn, an Oldham County developer who specializes in adaptive reuse of old buildings, is finishing a beautiful renovation of the circa 1850 sanctuary.
It has been leased to event venue operator Denise Jerome, who this summer will reopen it as The Lancaster at St. Clair, a place for weddings, receptions, music performances and other gatherings. A public preview is planned 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. on Aug. 20. Rental information: Michaelisevents.com.
The remaining part of the old gymnasium's lot at the corner of Wapping and St. Clair streets is being converted into a garden-like outdoor event space enclosed by a wrought-iron fence.
After that is finished, Dunn will renovate the school building, which opened in 1923, and lease it for office space.
Dunn and his son, John, were already familiar with downtown Frankfort, having renovated the McClure Building, a 1906 office building, and the Market Square Apartments, a former Odd Fellows lodge built in the 1850s.
When Dunn first looked at the Good Shepherd campus, he was only interested in the school building. But the real estate agent insisted that he walk inside the church.
"I thought, 'What would I do with a church?'" he recalled. "But, being raised Catholic, I thought I should look at it, and, wow! You could just feel the reverence of the place."
Dunn was captivated by the old sanctuary's Gothic Revival arches, colorful stained-glass windows, bell tower and working pipe organ.
"I had the same feeling he did when I walked into the space," said Jerome, who manages several event venues in metro Louisville.
So, in May 2014, Dunn bought the church, school and what was left of the former gymnasium lot. He expects to spend about $500,000 on the church and garden renovation.
Dunn and Jerome named the venue for Father J.M. Lancaster, who came to Frankfort in 1848 to lead a 20-year-old Catholic congregation that was suddenly swelling with immigrants escaping military conscription in Germany and famine in Ireland.
The next year, he paid $5,000 for a small Presbyterian church on Wapping Street, where the congregation worshiped as its members literally built their new church around it. When the new church was finished, the old one was dismantled. Since then, Good Shepherd has played a big role in Frankfort society.
"He has done a good job with the renovation," Potts said of Dunn. "And I think he has a good idea for its reuse that is going to help all the revitalization efforts already underway downtown. Frankfort is kind of buzzing right now."
While restoring Good Shepherd was a big job, Dunn said the project has gone more smoothly than many do.
"There was a lot of damage, and I did have to say a few prayers, 'Is this what you want me to do?'" Dunn said. "But the pieces fell into place pretty easily. Sometimes you feel like there are other hands guiding you."