, Salem, MA

March 18, 2013

A legacy in Legos

Salem man creates model of St. Joseph's


---- — SALEM — Although nobody realized it this winter, St. Joseph Church was falling and rising at the same time.

While demolition of the 63-year-old, white brick Catholic church was under way on Lafayette Street, a scale-model re-creation of the church was being constructed on a tabletop in a Salem apartment.

The large and architecturally accurate model, which, believe it or not, is made of Legos, is arguably a work of art and, without doubt, a personal statement about the loss of a church that was built by French-Canadian immigrants, closed by the Archdiocese of Boston and razed this past January to make way for a housing development.

“To destroy a church, it’s very disappointing,” said John Walker, 37, a married father of three who attended St. Joseph as a boy and made his First Communion there. “Once a church is put on a site, it becomes holy ground.”

The holy ground has shifted to Walker’s second-floor apartment near a pizza shop on Boston Street.

Walker, the Frank Lloyd Wright of Legos, decided to take on this project in October after reading a story about plans to take down a church that was attended by several generations of his family.

The idea really clicked when he went over to the closed church and took photographs of the exterior.

“I looked at it — it was all 90-degree angles,” said Walker, a manager at Target who played with Legos as a child but didn’t take up the hobby again until he started raising children of his own. “I thought, ‘Wow, that would be pretty easy to build.’”

The original idea of a small model started growing into something much larger, which now occupies half his den. Just listen to the facts and figures:

Number of Legos: 20,000

Weight: 100 pounds

Length: 41/2 feet

Height: 3 feet

Cost: $2,000

With a little help from his two youngest daughters, it has taken Walker almost six months, working about an hour a day, to complete everything but the ceiling and roof.

He is building St. Joseph Church down to the minute details.

Just like the original, it is a cruciform church in the International Style with a large crucifix on the front, a three-tiered steeple, an altar with a chalice and candles, an organ in the balcony, parishioners in the pews, and statues of the Virgin Mary and Joseph with the baby Jesus, both of which he found on eBay.

“You can put in a search,” Walker said.

The model will be unveiled Sunday, April 7, when St. James Church, the new home of many St. Joseph parishioners, opens a time capsule removed from the cornerstone.

Walker plans to strap the model to a table, carry it down the stairs of his apartment building with the help of a cousin and drive the short distance to St. James in his 2004 Honda Element.

Once the model is completely finished, which will be later this spring, Walker hopes it will go on display at both St. James and Ste. Anne, another Salem church with French origins.

He thinks, or at least hopes, he is building something special. Reaction so far has been positive.

“My wife posted a picture the other night (on Facebook),” he said. “One of the responses was from my aunt. She said when she saw it, she started crying.”

Although nothing can replace brick and mortar, Walker hopes his Lego model will keep the flame alive. St. Joseph’s, he said, is worth remembering.

“The church was a big part of the city skyline,” he said. “It’s a landmark.”

Tom Dalton can be reached at