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Immaculate Conception Church a moving experience

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Posted: Saturday, July 9, 2011 10:47 pm | Updated: 1:15 pm, Wed Jan 16, 2013.

Some buildings, because of location or design, are picturesque from the moment they are completed. Others acquire character as they settle into the landscape. Immaculate Conception Church has had its charm bequeathed to it by time and the efforts of its priests and parishioners.

When the church was constructed during the winter of 1904-05, it was an unimposing single-story structure at the corner of First Avenue and Dunkel Street. One of the few things that set it apart was its size (65 feet by 30 feet). Father Francis Monroe, the priest responsible for its construction, was chastised by some townsfolk for building such a large building since, “There would never be enough Catholics in Fairbanks to justify the size.”

Father Monroe found himself busy though, especially after the Catholic Church built St. Joseph’s Hospital on the north side of the river in 1906. (The hospital closed in 1968 and was later torn down. Denali State Bank now occupies St. Joseph’s three-story concrete addition that was constructed in the 1950s.)

The hospital and church were on opposite banks of the river, and Father Monroe quickly faced a quandary. As church and hospital-related duties increased, he found himself spending more and more time commuting. What to do? Build a new church near the hospital? No, he decided, move the existing structure across the river.

Many thought the priest’s plan to move the church building was folly, but Monroe was undaunted. The Catholics acquired the lot next to the hospital, and in the fall of 1911, the church building was hauled by horse-team the few blocks to the river. Then everyone waited for freeze-up.

In November, when the river ice was thick enough to support a horse team, parallel lines (about 30 feet apart) were laid out diagonally across the river and holes chipped through the ice 8-feet apart along the lines. Pilings were inserted through the holes, driven into the river bottom, allowed to freeze in place and cut off several feet above the ice. Heavy timbers laid over the pilings thus formed rough trestles across the river. The church building could then be pulled across the river on logs spanning the trestles.

It was quite a day’s entertainment when the building finally inched across the trestles. Apparently, betting was brisk on whether the move would be successful. (Odds did not favor it.) But there were no major problems and the building was hauled up the opposite bank and cribbed high enough to allow for a basement. In the spring of 1912, the basement was completed and a two-story attached residence was added.

In 1914, the church’s ceiling was raised, a more steeply-pitched roof was constructed and the belfry was added. It was then the larger-than-life statue of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception was placed on the narthex roof. The church’s stained glass windows were installed in 1926. Immaculate Conception Church was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1976 and is now one of the most-photographed landmarks in Fairbanks.

Ray Bonnell is a freelance artist and writer and longtime Fairbanks resident. See more of his artwork at www.pingostudio.us.

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