by Joe Bollig
TOPEKA — Take a good look at the twin towers of Assumption Church here while you can. Soon, they’ll be coming down.
A century of weather has caused deterioration in the upper-most parts of the towers, making their removal necessary sometime this autumn.
In the meantime, the city of Topeka prohibited occupancy and a fence was erected to keep pedestrians away from the front of the building. Parking, too, was restricted.
Assumption and Holy Name parishes merged to become Mater Dei Parish on July 14, 2006. Assumption Church is located north of the state Capitol, across S.W. 8th St. The first Catholic church in Topeka was erected at this site in 1862, replaced by a second in 1882. The present church was built in 1923.
Mass is no longer celebrated in the church because of the structural problems.
“We were celebrating noon Mass this past winter, but we closed in March,” said Father John Pilcher, pastor of Mater Dei Parish. “We have not celebrated Sunday Mass there since the pandemic. . . . I had not opened it up except for noon Mass. I didn’t want to go back until after construction.”
An inspection of the church in 2016 revealed the need to do tuckpointing, said Dale Kirmer, Mater Dei parishioner and head of the parish maintenance committee.
More serious deterioration was found in the two towers.
“We think the damage continued because of freeze-thaw during the winters,” said Kirmer. “With old towers, there is a secondary roof [within], and that secondary roof is failing, so we were getting water inside the church in the tower area. It’s making its way down to the first-floor men’s room.”
The east tower, which contains the bells, is in slightly better shape but water is seeping into the building there as well.
The parish wanted to repair or replace the towers in 2018, but couldn’t due to financial reasons and other delays. The parish had a structural engineer make another inspection in 2021. The deterioration advanced and he recommended that the top one-third of the towers be removed.
The remainder of the church is in good structural condition, said Dan Himmelberg, archdiocesan director of real estate and construction.
A factor in the structural problems may stem from the way the towers were built. The uppermost parts of the towers are not part of the original church, completed in 1923, he said.
These extensions were built between 1928 and 1932, when money became available. The extensions, flanking the peaked center pediment, are built of a slightly lighter-colored brick.
The contractor is Concrete & Masonry Restoration, Inc., of Kansas City, Missouri. The work will take place starting in October and will likely be finished by February, said Kirmer. If work goes according to this schedule, Mass will resume sometime next March.
The parish doesn’t have the funds to rebuild the towers, so the bells will be removed and stored, and the top one-third of the towers will be removed and capped off, said Kirmer.
The cost of the project will be approximately $945,000. The parish has committed $450,000 to the project and that will be matched, with a bit more, from the archdiocesan parish revitalization fund.
The parish hopes to hold a capital campaign to raise funds to rebuild the towers, which will cost $1.3 million or more.
“Our original intent was to do the whole thing (removal and reconstruction) but we didn’t have the funds,” said Kirmer.
Due to its location next to the state Capitol, Catholics in government service would often come to noon Mass. Assumption has been the location of special Masses and events, including the annual March for Life. It has been visited by non-Catholics and former parishioners to appreciate its aesthetic qualities.
“It’s a beautiful church that needs a lot of attention,” said Father Pilcher. “If anyone wants to help us, we’d appreciate that very much. We’ll have a capital campaign sometime.”