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Transfiguration school's cafeteria and gym to be remolded

| Sunday, July 20, 2008

The Transfiguration Roman Catholic School cafeteria doesn't look much like a church -- but that's about to change, at least a little.

The parish's 91-year-old church burned to the ground in June 2006 after flames jumped from a burning SUV parked next to the building.

Since then, Mass has been held in the cafeteria and gym of the parish school, at 100 McKrell Road in Russellton.

Now, some of the fire insurance settlement -- previously estimated by the Diocese of Pittsburgh at $800,000 -- will be used to remodel the room to "make it into a more proper worship site for having Mass," said the Rev. John Vojtek, Transfiguration pastor. "The basketball hoops and banners are gone, the big flag gone, obviously."

Diocese spokesman the Rev. Ron Lengwin said the project will cost about $135,000.

According to Vojtek, contractors arrived Wednesday to:

• Install air conditioning;

• Add a new altar area, with a canopy and a raised sanctuary;

• Refurbish the walls;

• Replace the chairs with pews to seat almost 300 people;

• Add carpeting;

• Install a cathedral-style ceiling, which will help hide old duct work and make the ceiling attractive and more prayerful, Vojtek said.

The work will continue throughout the summer, he said.

Vojtek would not comment on how much of the settlement was being used for the changes, but said the parish will hold onto the remaining money until it is needed.

Gary Bogan, the township's code enforcement officer, said no permits were on file with his office and none are likely to be required for the work if the rest of it remains cosmetic.

The church continues to draw about 200 parishioners for regular Sunday Mass, more on holidays, Vojtek said.

The school closed to its students in June -- a bitter blow to the young families that remained in the parish.

After the diocese-sponsored meetings that confirmed parishioners' worst fears -- that the church would never be rebuilt and the school would soon close -- there was another wave of dropouts, Vojtek said.

According to school and diocesan officials, Transfiguration's enrollment has been declining for years, from 92 students in 2004-05 to 57 in its final year.

Cost per pupil went from $4,200 to $6,200 over the same four years.

Tuition rose, too, from $2,200 to $3,200, and would only have gotten higher as the number of students continued to drop, officials said.

Now that the school is closed, though, the parish will lose most of the income that used to come from its young families, said Gerard Vaerewyck of Culmerville.

He and his wife, Mary, left the parish a few weeks ago. They plan to attend Mass at one of the two parishes attached to the schools their sons will attend: St. Irenaeus in Oakmont or Our Lady of the Most Blessed Sacrament in Natrona Heights, Harrison, which is in the same building as St. Joseph High School.

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