SHAWNEE, Oklahoma — Two years after the strongest earthquake in Oklahoma history rocked the tiny campus of St. Gregory's University, alumni, monks and community members are celebrating the completion of restoration work on the campus' main building.
One of the turrets on Benedictine Hall was toppled in the magnitude 5.6 temblor that rocked central Oklahoma on Nov. 5, 2011, which was Homecoming Weekend for St. Gregory's University. A second turret was left with a hole in it from the earthquake and officials feared that it may fall over onto the building, so it was demolished by pushing it over. The final two turrets on the building, which opened in 1915 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, were dismantled brick-by-brick.
The damage to the building, which houses administrative offices and most of the school's classrooms and is the main focal point on the campus, was a blow to the state's oldest institution of higher learning, which was started by two Benedictine monks. It was also a shock — Oklahomans are well-suited to deal with tornadoes but had little experience with earthquakes of such strength up until then.
"The building represents much more than a structure," said Abbot Lawrence Stasyszen O.S.B. "The building is symbolic of the entire institution and its mission."
The damage hastened a campaign already in the works to raise money for renovation work ahead of the 100th anniversary of the building in 2015, said Harley Lingerfelt, director of operations. Donations from more than 3,000 alumni and university supporters covered the $5 million price tag for the renovation and restoration work. A ceremony to bless the refinished structure took place Saturday, during the university's annual Homecoming weekend.
Soon after the earthquake, an Oklahoma City-based architecture firm and masons started working to restore the turrets to their original gothic look— but with a few modifications, Lingerfelt said. Steel pipes measuring 52 feet were placed inside each turret and connected to the brick to stabilize the structure and, it is hoped, to protect against future natural disasters. A different — though very similar — style of brick was used because the factory that provided the original 100-year-old brick had closed. New molded shields and grotesque figures are also much lighter weight than the original 300-pound pieces.
The stairway steps leading to Benedictine Hall are also being replaced, and aluminum siding on the windows will be changed to wood.
"I think it's wonderful we were able to make this happen in two years. A lot of work has gone in by a lot of people to make this happen and it's really great to see those four turrets back in place as the icon they are to Shawnee," Lingerfelt said. "(The turrets) have been a beacon to a lot of people and mean a lot to a lot of people."
More than 200 magnitude 3.0 earthquakes have hit central Oklahoma since January 2009, according to a report recently released by the U.S. and Oklahoma geological surveys, and scientists continue to investigate why the rate has changed so dramatically in recent years. One possible explanation links the increased rate to wastewater disposal related to oil and gas production in the area.
Whatever the reason, Stasyszen thinks earthquakes are here to stay in Oklahoma.
"I suppose earthquakes are part of our life here now," Stasyszen said as he sat in St. Gregory's Abbey exactly two years to the day after the 5.6-magnitude quake hit and one day after he felt the ground shake from a 3.9-magnitude earthquake centered at Jones. "Any of these natural disasters, we can do our best to prepare for them, but we also can't live in anxiety of natural disasters and when they inevitably happen, we focus on our mission and the good of our people and move on and trust that with the right spirit and attitude we can overcome any adversity."
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