Jesus Christ was a carpenter. But sometimes a church needs a pipe fitter.
Just ask the Franciscan friars at St. Anthony Shrine & Ministry Center in downtown Boston, who found themselves facing a crisis hidden behind the walls of the center’s chapels, friary, and other facilities where 230,000 people come every year to pray, volunteer, and receive services.
“It was a building that was in really, really tough shape,” said Kevin Sheehan, 59, a former mechanical contractor who has been attending Mass at the shrine for seven years. “Honestly I was shocked. I was really, really shocked.”
The 12-story building was relying on systems for heating, ventilation, and air conditioning that dated back to the shrine’s opening in 1954 and had never been replaced.
The Rev. Thomas Conway, the shrine’s executive director, feared the aging system would just give out in the dead of winter and leave the facility uninhabitable. If that happened, he wondered, where would the 29 friars living there, many 65 or older, go?
“I don’t want to think what it would be like to have a 12-story building with no heat on a zero-degree day,” Conway said.
Luckily, the shrine had Sheehan, the manager of technical maintenance services at Harvard University, sitting in the pews and itching to help the church he loves. The friars honored him last month with the shrine’s “Social Consciousness Award.”
“He’s like a pied piper,” Conway said. “It’s kind of this beautiful thing. Kevin is absolutely the ring leader of this. I tease him that I work for him now.”
Since last fall, Sheehan has accomplished what was once considered unthinkable: replacing and updating heating and cooling systems throughout the 200,000-square-foot facility for half of the $1.5 million cost. The project is expected to be completed this fall.
The overhaul was massive. Pneumatic controls, which most stopped using 25 years ago, still operated the heating and cooling systems. There was no way to moderate heat on the shrine’s 150 radiators. The utility bills topped more than $350,000 annually and occasionally required the shrine to take up special collections to cover costs, Conway said.
Last October, the shrine replaced a large cooling tower on the roof using a crane. The friars paid $100,000 for the tower and renting the crane, but all the labor was donated, saving $150,000, Sheehan said.
While systems were replaced, Conway said, volunteers formed an impromptu ministry, meeting most Saturdays and at other times during the week to serve their church by doing demolition work, painting, and installing new heating and cooling systems.
“I just wanted to help out the shrine,” said Joseph Januszewicz, 16, who volunteers with his father, Pawel. “It’s been really nice working with my dad. I really like the experience.”
The volunteers came from all walks of life. Some were from the building trades while others had no experience.
Sheehan approached building trades unions for volunteers and Conway put out the call at Mass to get some extra hands. In all, 47 people volunteered.
Pipe fitters from E.M. Duggan Inc., which is known for working on big projects like the Millennium Tower Boston, created piping to connect a new water chiller to the existing system in its prefab shop in Canton and then installed it over four weekends in March for free, said Ken Hagan, who organized the volunteers.
“They’re very, very appreciative of what we’re doing,” Hagan said. “That makes it all the better you can see how much what you’re doing means to people.”
Charles D. Sheehy Inc. donated fittings and E.M. Duggan gave pipes, said Vincent Petroni, E.M. Duggan’s president.
Petroni said he and his wife, Maureen Duggan Petroni, attend the shrine.
“It was very touching that they would do that,” he said of the volunteers. “These are construction workers. They have families. They have children and they gave up their weekends. . . . I didn’t expect that to get the response that we did.”
Vendors like Metropolitan Pipe & Supply Co. in Cambridge provided much of the equipment needed for the project, including buffer tanks for the air conditioning, circulator pumps to move water through the shrine, valves, piping, and coils, said Bob Barry, 64, a sales representative.
Metropolitan supplied the equipment at cost, saving the shrine between $40,000 and $50,000, Barry said. He said he also donated his commission.
Sheehan said he is amazed how people continue to volunteer to help almost a year after work began.
“People are still coming in,” he said. “It grows.”Laura Crimaldi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @lauracrimaldi.