SALEM - St. Joseph Church, torn down in January to make way for affordable housing, has been rebuilt as a replica made of more than 20,000 LEGOs.
The 63-year-old church is recreated in exacting detail -- from the white brick facade, to the gold-colored crucifix over the entrance, to its soaring spire. Inside, tiny LEGO figurines sit in brown pews, witnessing a bride and groom wed at the ornate altar.
"That's where we got married," said Tanya Mateer, 35, peering into the model with her two children, Ethan, 5, and Abby 3. "It was so beautiful. This is so amazing."
John Walker, 38, a former parishioner, built the replica as a tribute to his childhood church. It was unveiled on Sunday at St. James Church, where parishioners opened a time capsule placed in the cornerstone of St. Joseph in 1949.
"I didn't do it for the accolades," Walker said, as former parishioners marveled at the model. "I did it to ease the pain of the people who had to see the church come down."
He started in October, guided by photographs and memories, of the church on Lafayette Street. He has spent about $2,000 to buy LEGOs of all sizes and colors. He still needs to complete the gray roof, and add more furnishings. He hopes to finish by October, Walker said.
"I just want St. Joseph to be remembered," said Walker, who said he works as manager for Target in Boston. " Our whole family went there."
The white-brick church replaced the original St. Joseph Church built by French-Canadian immigrants in the late 19th century. It was closed in 2004 as part of a restructuring of the Archdiocese of Boston.
The property was sold to the Planning Office of Urban Affairs, a nonprofit arm of the archdiocese. A 51-unit affordable housing complex will be built there. Preservationists fought to save the church, filing multiple legal appeals to zoning. They cited the church's importance as an example of minimalist architecture popular in the post-World War II era. After the appeals failed, the church was torn down in January.
But the time capsule was retrieved. Several hundred former parishioners awaited its opening, during a ceremony recalling St. Jospeh Parish in prayer, song and memory.
"We shared the word of God, we shared the sacraments," said the Rev. John Sheridan, pastor of St. James. "The baptisms, first communions, the weddings, the funerals . . . Those memories will never (leave) us."
Deacon Norman LaPointe recalled the day the box was buried in the cornerstone. "Now I'm here to open it," he said, smiling.
Inside, a copy of the Salem Evening News, dated May 10, 1949, had the banner headline "USS Salem Has Flawless Trial Cruise of 150 Miles." A copy of Le Courier de Salem, a French-language newspaper, was dated May 13, 1949. Each were broadsheets, yellowed with time.
"They had more news to publish back then than they do now," said the Rev. Lawrence Rondeau, the retired St. Joseph pastor, who now lives at St. James rectory. "Look how big the papers were."
A letter of appreciation to veterans was penned in French. "It is dedicated to the heart of all of those who did battle for us, "Rondeau read, translating into English. :And to whom we owe an eternal remembrance."
A typed list included the names of all parishioners and construction crews involved in building the church. A scroll dated May 15, 1949 listed Pope Pius XII, Boston Cardinal Richard Cushing, and the names of priests and nuns who served at St. Joseph.
"We had so many here over the years," said Lillian Bouchard, 89. "I attended St. Joseph's all of my life. I miss it."
Walker hopes his LEGO creation fills the void of a lost church. "I wanted St. Joseph to be remembered," he said. "Our whole family came here."
He started playing with LEGOs soon after his baptism at St. Joseph. "I think I got him his first set when he was about a year old," said his mother, Diane Dubiel, who grew up in St. Joseph. "He started with the big ones, then moved on to the smaller ones. It was always his favorite thing to do."
He rediscovered his childhood passion when his three daughters, now ages 15, 8 and 5, started playing with iconic plastic bricks. After a LEGO store opened at Northshore Mall in Peabody, Walker and his two younger daughters often visited. One day, after learning St. Joseph was being torn down, the spirit moved him.
"I went over there (to St. Joseph) and took pictures with my phone," Walker said, smiling. "I thought to myself, 'This is all 90 degree angles. It should be pretty easy to build.'"
Since October, he's spent about one hour each day, rebuilding St. Joseph one plastic brick at a time. Among the minute details: an organist plays in the choir loft, and a janitor mops the main aisle. The model now weighs more than 100 pounds, and stands 3.5 ft. high, and 4.5 ft. long.
Once the model is completed, Walker plans to loan it to Salem's four other Catholic churches for display.
"It's never going to be sold," he said. "And it will never be torn down."