By McKenna Horsley
When Joe Dunn bought the Lancaster at St. Clair, he was not sure what he was going to do with the church.
He saw water damage, plaster coming off walls and other issues due to a lack of maintenance when he came into the then Good Shepherd Church to inspect it before purchasing it.
He remembered looking at stained-glass windows and asking God if buying the church was something he wanted Dunn to do.
“I said, ‘If it is, show me, let me know,’” Dunn recalled.
Dunn, with his son John, bought the Catholic church on Wapping Street in May 2014, along with a lot and a school building on either side of it for $300,000, according to the deed. Dunn has been in construction and preservation of historic buildings for most of his life.
Now, the space, dubbed the Lancaster at St. Clair, is an event center and is leased with Michaelis Events, an event planning company based in Louisville. Dunn said that lease will expire in January. Dunn’s wife Sally will continue to make the Lancaster an event space for weddings and corporate events.
Dunn said $500,000 was the price tag for the Good Shepherd Church renovation. It renovation started in the summer of 2014 and lasted for a little over a year.
“We wanted people who had gone to church here to walk in and still be very proud,” Dunn said.
The renovation included the addition of bathrooms and a garden area next to the church. The bathrooms are in a little annex off of the church’s main room. However, the annex does not seem out of place. Dunn and an architect worked to make the brick seem as worn as the church and had replica fixtures on the outside of the church made to adorn the new addition.
Dunn said one of the first challenges the presented by the church renovation was getting the scaffoldings high enough to reach the ceiling. A friend told him of a type of lift that would be able to reach the height. To get the lift into the church, there was 3/4 of an inch clearance between the machine and a door on the building’s side.
“That in itself to me was God saying, ‘This is good.’ It was like several things unfolded as we were doing this renovation,” Dunn said.
A painter from Danville, offered to repaint areas of the church for $13,000 because they had the lift. Prices Dunn had received from other painters were $40,000 or more.
The carpet and tiles were also stripped from the floor, revealing a pinewood floor underneath. The wood, which had been blackened over the years, was refurbished during the renovation.
Dunn also rigged the bell in the tower of the church to be rung manually. It used to run on a motor, he said, but that broke before he acquired the building. He ran ropes through the floor of the belfry and next to the front door, where people can ring the bell themselves. Usually, children or friends will ring the bell at the end of a wedding, letting downtown Frankfort know someone just tied the knot.
As for the bell itself, it has a storied history. The bell rang the day the American Civil War ended in 1865. So, Dunn thought it fitting to ring the bell to commemorate its anniversary in 2014.
Dunn said he did not want the building to lose the feeling of a church and intentionally left the Stations of the Cross on the walls, stained-glass windows from 1906 and an organ sitting on a loft overlooking the floor.
“It’s a long heritage of traditional-type things that they do. When you walk into a Catholic church and you have been born and raised Catholic, it speaks volumes to you,” Dunn said.
Dunn attended the church on a few occasions in his mid-20s. He used to live in Frankfort in the late 1970s.
“I was familiar with it, but I wasn’t a regular patron back in those days,” Dunn said.
He said that Good Shepherd Parish, which has now moved to Leestown Road, was beginning to outgrow the church. The parish began construction on the Leestown Road campus in 1997. The church on Wapping Street was decommissioned in 2011.
The downtown Good Shepherd Church was built in 1850. Father James Madison Lancaster came to serve Frankfort Catholics in 1848 and purchased a Presbyterian church then located on Wapping Street. The next year, construction on the Catholic church began.
Lancaster’s name is memorialized in one of the stained glass windows of the church near the front door. Dunn said friends Robby and Denise Jerome, owners of Michaelis Events, liked the name when they were in talks to lease the property and it stuck with the building.
“I know this was a difficult thing for the parishioners to let go of … to sell something like that is a hard building to sell,” Dunn said.
Before Dunn bought the Good Shepherd Church, its future had been up in the air. Dunn said that some had wanted to use the property the church sat on as parking for the courthouse next door.
Russ Hatter, a historian at the Capital City Museum, said that a group formed around 2008 to preserve the church. Some open meetings were held to discuss plans for the church. For a time, the museum was going to take over the church as an event space, but it did not have enough money to do so.
“He saved the building,” Hatter said of Dunn.