Coptics renovate vacant church

One of the oldest branches of Christianity with its roots in Egypt is remodeling a long-vacant brownstone church and rectory on 12th Avenue near the police station to create a convent and charity social center.

The building was originally a Christ Reformed Church, constructed in 1864 and renovated in 1902, based on its cornerstone dates. Now it’s slated for new use by the Coptic Orthodox Church.

The convent will house three or four deaconesses or sisters who will work with the needy in the community, including the homeless, using the church building for charity services, said Father Mauritius Anba Bishoy, a monk priest at St. John the Beloved Patmos Monastery near Stroudsburg.

“God willing, we’ll also use [the church building] to pray in,” Anba Bishoy said.

The women will be coming “to help the area,” he said.

The Coptics, who trace their faith to St. Mark, already have a church in Altoona – St. Mina – housed in a building formerly occupied by SS. Peter and Paul, a Polish Roman Catholic Church whose congregation merged with St. Leo’s to form Our Lady of Fatima parish in the former St. Leo’s building.

The Coptic convent should be ready for occupancy in a few months and the church building in six months to a year, Anba Bishoy estimated. The word Coptic comes from a Greek word meaning Egyptian.

One of the Coptic general bishops in Egypt, Bishop Boutros, had hoped to fix the leaky roof of the brownstone before last winter but didn’t have the finances, which led to exterior and interior damage, Anba Bishoy said.

The roof has been completed, and workers have been repairing the masonry, according to Matt Reed of Matt Reed Masonry of Ashville, who was working on the building Thursday.

Gutter leakage had forced out stone – chocolate sandstone quarried in the 1800s near Lake Altoona, before the mainline went through – near the top of the wall on three sides, with the most damage above the alley in back.

That stone simply fell into the alley, Reed said.

Reed has restored the stone – cutting new blocks where necessary with a pair of hammers in the old style.

He repointed in other areas and repaired the front steps, using mortar to fill in spalled areas of sandstone.

The visible stone is the exterior of an approximately 6-inch veneer, Reed said.

There’s also a sandstone interior wall, about 6 inches thick, he said.

In between is “chop” or rubble stone set in mortar, about 12 inches thick.

Because the mortar that holds the chop adheres to the both the exterior and interior walls, it creates a monolithic structure, according to Reed.

Workers will also make improvements on exterior windows that protect the building’s stained glass, Anba Bishoy said.

The roof cost $75,000, the masonry work about $45,000 and the windows about $8,000, Anba Bishoy said.

He didn’t provide a figure for the interior work, which he hopes will begin soon.

A lot of that needs done, Reed said.

The church has been working with authorities on payment of code fines for a delay in getting the exterior back in sound condition.

He credited a local magisterial district judge for his forbearance.

But the fines aren’t forgiven yet, Anba Bishoy said.

“Every month we have a hearing,” he said. “We’re trying to prove we’re honest.”

“They’re working with a tight budget,” said Lee Slusser, the city planning director. “If they can save the building, great.”

There had been talk about demolishing the building to make a parking lot for the police.

“But we feel that as God’s home and house, it hurts us to hear of a church being demolished or used as something other than for God’s purposes,” Anba Bishoy said.

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.