BY KATIE ROSE QUANDTWhile hearts may break over the loss of a parish, many closed church buildings in the Diocese continue to bring good to their communities through new uses.
St. Anthony's Church on Madison Avenue in Albany, down the hill from the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, has stood vacant for most of the 37 years since its closing and deconsecration in 1972. Now, the long-abandoned building has been reincarnated as Grand Street Community Arts, a thriving arts center.
The building, which served as a place of worship for Italian- American Catholics throughout much of the 20th century, now unifies the community and provides many neighborhood children and teens with art classes and other activities.
On a recent afternoon, the now pew-less church hall echoed with the shrieks and laughter of children participating in Kid's Camp, a summer art camp offered daily for children aged five to 12.
When several vans of visiting high school Catholic Worker volunteers from Connecticut arrived at the center, they were quickly assigned tasks and joined the children in arts and crafts activities and rousing games of "duck, duck, goose."
Grand Street Community Arts, a neighborhood-based non-profit, began in 2003 when neighborhood residents came together to discuss problems in their community, explained Tom McPheeters, the executive director.
"It grew out of a series of neighborhood discussions centered on the crime rate," he explained. Due to the high proportion of renters in the neighborhood, "We wanted to find a way to connect [the renters] to the homeowners."
The following year, Grand Street Community Arts (then Mansion Community Arts, Inc.) purchased the unused St. Anthony's building from the Albany Diocese for $5,000, and Youth Organics (YO!), a South End seasonal gardening project, was born.
Through Youth Organics, teenagers nurture a community garden, while learning real-world lessons of agriculture, cooking and nutrition.
Participants gain additional experience by marketing their produce.
The center has filled an important role. "We're the only free program for younger ages around," said Mr. McPheeters.
Since its first year, Grand Street Community Arts has expanded to offer a variety of arts-based programs. Last summer marked the beginning of Youth Film eXperience (YouthFX), which provides technical film training and allows participants to create their own short films.
This year, the center hopes to build on the success of YO! and embark on the Vacant Lot Project, which aims to convert empty land throughout the area from eyesores into usable public spaces.
The building is also used for a variety of local events, ranging from art shows, to African Dance classes, to courses in martial arts.
Grand Street Community Arts relies heavily on volunteer efforts. AmeriCorps members have been working with the nonprofit for five years.
Currently, Jennifer Simek of Seattle, Wash., has begun a year with the center as an Ameri-Corps Vista volunteer through Siena College in Loudonville. Volunteer groups from The College of Saint Rose in Albany help with cleaning and renovations each fall.
"The neighborhood provides a lot of volunteer energy," Mr. McPheeters said, recalling "work party after work party" of local volunteers who put time and energy into building renovations.
Before programs could be held in the abandoned church, extensive renovations were required to meet city ordinances. Handicapped-accessible bathrooms were installed, walls were re-plastered and the flooring was repaired. Remnants of the building's life as a Catholic church remain, including several stained glass windows, the altar and even a confessional.
Plans have been drawn up to convert the large, unused basement into a shared space with the nearby Harriet Tubman Free School.
A new energy plan for the building is also in development. St. Anthony's was built in 1907, when energy costs were not a concern, explained Mr. McPheeters. Heating the building would be far too expensive, so it can currently be used only in the warmer months.
Grand Street Community Arts is funded largely through donations from dinners, benefits and mailings. It has been the recipient of many small grants, and grant writing is a continuous process for the non-profit.
Meeting costs for program development and building renovation is a challenge, explained Mr. McPheeters: "Basically, it's one step at a time, trying to make it work."
Each month, Grand Street Community Arts invites interested community members to tour the building and see what it has to offer. The program, Grand Beginnings, is held from 8-9 a.m. on the first Thursday of each month.
Workers and volunteers say they respect the building and remain sensitive to the concerns of former parishioners. "I think the challenge with any building like a church is that...you have to be careful how you use it," said Mr. McPheeters.
"I meet a lot of people who grew up in the area, attended the parish and received First Communion here," he said. "They seem thrilled with the idea."
One former parishioner lives across the street from the building. He often stops in to observe the activities taking place in his former church, and has ex-pressed nothing but approval, Mr. McPheeters said. "He's really pleased to see the place being used again."
(To learn more about Grand Street Community Arts programs or to attend a Grand Beginnings session, contact Tom McPheeters at 433-0679.)
Editor's note: By the end of Called to be Church, the diocesan realignment of parishes, 33 churches will close and most of their buildings will be sold. In recent decades, others have already been converted by new owners to shelters, schools, treatment programs and Protestant churches. The Evangelist will periodically profile some of these buildings in their new lives.