Our Lady of Victory National Shrine and Basilica, which has stood as a beacon of faith in Lackawanna for nearly 90 years, has stories buried deep inside its walls, not the least of which was the collapse of the famous dome. With payments slow to be made and the architect in Cleveland during much of the construction, how could the jewel of Lackawanna be built in four years? That question and many others will be answered in "Building a Basilica" the hourlong documentary produced by Daybreak TV Productions.
The program will reair on ABC-TV on Monday, Feb. 17 at 10 a.m. Award-winning actor Brian Dennehy narrates the film.
The documentary tells the story of the building of Venerable Nelson H. Baker's dream, a church beautiful enough to be a fitting tribute to the Blessed Mother. The script is based on a series of letters written from Father Baker, then the pastor of St. Patrick Parish in Limestone Hill, and French-born ecclesiastic architect Emile Ulrich written during the 1920s construction. Some of these letters were found recently and are exclusive to this production. Producer Robert Karaszewski was able to use the actual words of Father Baker and Ulrich to tell their story.
"When Claire (Rung, Daybreak executive producer) first came to me with the idea of doing a story on building the basilica, I went 'Hmm, is there a story there?' I came to find out that in the past five years, OLV came across a large assortment of correspondence between Father Baker and Ulrich and all the contractors who worked on this. So digging into this, there's definitely a story here that people probably don't know."
Karaszewski worked with OLV archivist Sister Jane Muldoon, RSM, to organize the letters and form a timeline. The letters not only named the companies supplying marble, steel and stained glass, but spoke of obstacles and hurdles that hindered the construction. Karaszewski said this kind of vérité could not happen today.
"One hundred years from now nobody would know the story because no one keeps text messages," he said. "Father Baker saved everything, even the letters that he sent to Ulrich. He had copies made. So, it's all documented without a doubt as to what actually happened, in Father Baker's words. I'd have to say, I trust him to tell the true story." Further research answered questions such as why Lackawanna Steel used three different names, and what exactly happened with the dome.
The production uses film footage from the OLV archives, Georgia Archives and the National Canal Museum of Easton, Pa., which provided four reels of unseen film on the Lackawanna Steel Corporation.
"This is gold for a documentary," said Rung. "It's unheard of, to be able to have access to old film that may have never been seen before or at least not in 50 years. We're very fortunate to have had the opportunity to be able to tap into that quality of film."
Daybreak also shot reenactments of the fire that destroyed much of St. Patrick Church, Ulrich working at his desk and Father Baker praying. Interviews with Msgr. Paul J.E. Burkard, current pastor of OLV; architecture professor Duncan Stroik of the University of Notre Dame; local architect Beverly Foit-Albert, and Rebecca Barrett, author of "Building in their Styles: Fugman, Cramer and Ulrich," offer insight into the thought process of Father Baker and Ulrich as they worked together, disagreed, and even went behind each other's backs while building the basilica.
"It's a very interesting story how they worked together and sometimes butted heads," said Msgr. Burkard. "I suppose in every construction process that happens. That's a very interesting human interest story, I think."
Footage of OLV shot during renovations two years ago and computer animation produced by Villa Maria College showing the construction, the "building within a building" structure of the basilica, and the dome collapsing fills out the documentary.
This production allowed the Daybreak staff to try new filming techniques, such as using computer animation in a documentary. A helicopter camera was employed at the suggestion of editor Andrew Golebiowski for shots that a jib arm could not get. "Learning when to lean on those elements in the telling of a story was a good experience for all of us," Rung said.
The making of "Building a Basilica" taught Karaszewski a few things about documentaries, after a history of producing Daybreak's interview show "Matters of Faith."
"I learned there is always more to the story than is on the surface," he said. "You keep on digging, you find more, and the reason how something happened or why it happened. I learned nothing is impossible."
Rung, who has worked with Our Lady of Victory for years, including overseeing the documentary "Legacy of Victory: The Father Baker Story," found she still had much to learn about the Diocese of Buffalo's famous basilica.
"I never knew that the dome broke in the process of being built," she said. "I never knew the architect. Who was this guy?" She has a feeling Emile Ulrich's name will be better known from this point.
The production involved the entire Daybreak TV crew, as well as several staff members of OLV and local libraries and historians, all of whom made the story of a man with a dream all the more richer.
"It seems while we're doing this, we're building a documentary; it couldn't be done with just one person. Everybody, not just in Daybreak, but people all over town were intricate parts of putting this together, just like all the intricate parts of the basilica. It takes so many people to make something work. I feel like Ulrich here," Karaszewski said. "There were so many people who, when they heard about it said, 'What can I do?' They all wanted to be involved. The OLV staff and Msgr. Burkard were overcompensating to us to get us what we needed."
Working inside a church the magnitude of Our Lady of Victory and reading over the personal letters of a priest on his road to sainthood reaffirmed Karaszewski's faith.
"In most productions I've done here, you do as much as you can, and leave the rest to God," he said. "Without knowing the hows of the way things would work out, just staying the course, and the details are always taken care of. It works every time. Faith coupled with action - that is the secret."
"I always pray during a major production. I pray that the people who view it will be positively touched by the story," added Rung. "I pray for the producer, editor, videographer, engineering, supporting staff and myself; that we think clearly and are able to resolve problems that arise. During "Building a Basilica" my prayers were directed to Venerable Nelson Baker, Blessed Mother Mary, Mother Teresa and twice to all in heaven. I can gratefully say that my prayers were heard."
Daybreak choose Brian Dennehy, the Tony- and Golden Globe-winner best known for his work in "Cocoon" and "Tommy Boy," to narrate, based on his authoritative voice coupled with his Catholic background. Interestingly, he attended Our Lady of Victory School in Brooklyn. "He was the perfect narrator for 'Building a Basilica' and we were honored to work with him," said Rung.
Several local companies also contributed to the 60-minute documentary including Villa Maria College and August Productions who worked on animation. Crosswater Digital Media, who has partnered with Daybreak in the past, recorded Dennehy's narration and created the music for the piece. Crosswater's chairman and president, John Adamo, composed the theme music and volunteers from local Catholic choirs sang the theme.
"Building a Basilica," is presented by the Interfaith Broadcasting Commission's Vision and Values Series that is offered to ABC affiliates. It will air across the country between Jan. 19 and April 20, 2014. For air times in other cities, visit www.daybreaktv.org/Documentaries/BuildingaBasilica/AirDate.aspx.