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March 9, 2019

T&T’s first Catholic church in urgent need of restoration

The St Joseph RC Church established in T&T’s first capital is testimony to the Catholic Church’s early history. At 204 (1815–2019), the structure has deteriorated and urgently needs restoration. The parish has begun raising the TT$$8 million required for this project.

Catholic News’ Senior writer Lara Pickford-Gordon posed a few questions and got details on the condition of the church and its restoration from structural engineer Danielle Steele, managing director of Danielle Steele Consultancy.

Can you identify the specific areas of the church which require attention? The areas which would require restoration are the trusses and rafters which support the roof of the church; the gutters which are currently rusted through and are allowing water to enter the walls of the church; the roof in which a number of the ridge caps and some sheets need to be replaced; the walls which are completely rendered over with Portland concrete on the inside and the joints on the outside are sealed over (this impermeable barrier forces water to remain within the walls of the church) and finally the drains around the church which are cracked thus allowing water to get into the soil under the church.

What will be considered a priority? Firstly, it will be the roof supports then the roof and gutters, then the walls then the drains.

Was the disintegration of the structure natural because of its age and materials used? Not entirely. Buildings would naturally disintegrate but once one follows a proper maintenance programme this increases the lifespan of any building. This sort of maintenance programme would include things like the removal of any plant life on the church, the regular clearing of the gutters and regular termite treatment of the church.

This church however, like most other churches, not only suffered from the lack of a proper maintenance programme but also from the improper use of modern-day materials on an old church.

Just because a material is better and new does not mean that it should be used indiscriminately. The use of latex paints and Portland cement has done a significant amount of the damage to this church.

What factors may have worsened the state of the church?  The concrete, the paint, the vegetative growth on the church and the termites. Lime mortar is much softer than Portland cement and has a lower compressive strength. It expands and contracts with changes in humidity, temperature, and settlement. This helps to reduce the stress on stone and masonry units, thus reducing the chances of the units cracking or spalling.

Lime mortar is more porous and as such allows for any dampness in the wall to move via capillary action to the surface where it evaporates. Thus, any salt content in the water crystallises on the lime, damaging the lime and thus saving the stone/masonry.

Cement, on the other hand, evaporates water less than soft brick; as such resulting damp issues have caused salt formation and spalling on brick/stone surfaces and consequent disintegration of such. This is currently occurring throughout the church.

It is also important to note that the hydraulic lime mortar originally used has a natural ability to heal fissures within itself by lime re-carbonation. This is where water in cracks carries free lime solution to the surface where it meets air and hardens.

As Portland cement had been used to re-point the exterior and interior walls, it reduced the ability of water to escape through the surface leading to saturation within the mortar joints where the free lime never re-hardens. This, in turn, weakens the mortar and in some places has caused the mortar to deteriorate to the point of failure.

The latex paint is impermeable and does not allow for the water to leave the walls of the church thus resulting in the prevention of re-carbonation. The plants damage the walls via chemical deterioration, mechanical deterioration, and water retention.

During respiration the plant produces acids. These acids, through a process known as ‘chelation’, either dissolved the minerals in brick/stone or extracted specific minerals in the brick/stone.

As a result of the weakening by the chemical deterioration, the roots themselves are able to insert further into the church wall. As the plants grow the root systems grow, increasing in diameter thus further breaking down the church walls.

The mechanical deterioration also provides a pathway for water. This water is trapped within the church walls. As the plant grows, its shoots cover the wall preventing sunlight from reaching the moist wall thus limiting the natural drying process and assisting in the further deterioration.

As a heritage site I was told in doing restoration the same materials must be used to preserve the historical integrity. Can you explain? Yes, depending on the heritage classification of the building it can be as rigid as using the same material and methodology to maintain the historical fabric of the building or it could be that we can use different materials but the historical look must be maintained. For all intent and purpose, on this project we will be trying as best as possible to change out like material with like.

Are specific skilled workers required to work on this project?  Yes, persons who are familiar with the application of lime, which is completely different to the application of Portland cement, are required. Also joiners who are knowledgeable in the old joiner techniques are required. Back then nails were not used to connect the beams together.