JOHNSTOWN - 1901 Church Inc., a private not-for-profit corporation, is working to conserve three closed Catholic churches in Cambria City.
The churches - SS. Casimir and Emerich, St. Columba and Immaculate Conception - were officially purchased Dec. 30, but a symbolic transfer of ownership
was held Wednesday at Immaculate Conception.
The churches in the Cambria City National Historic District are about a century old and were sold by Resurrection Parish for $30,000.
They were closed in July of 2009 when the Catholic Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown merged five Cambria City parishes into one to form Resurrection Parish. The churches of the other two parishes - St. Rochus and St. Stephens - continue to be used by Resurrection Parish.
The parish has maintained the three vacant buildings for the past two years. But last summer, at a meeting with the grassroots organization Save Our Steeples and other interested parties, the parish announced its intentions to put the buildings on the market by October.
Teresa Stoughton Marafino, president of 1901 Church Inc., said those interested in saving the buildings were concerned that they could be dismantled or torn down.
David Hurst, project manager of The Steeples Project, a development campaign, said there were concerns that the stained glass windows and other fixtures would be removed.
"We didn't want to see that happen," he said.
At the time, Hurst and Marafino, also producer of the Mountain Playhouse in Jennerstown, were working to acquire St. Columba with the vision to use it as a venue for an historical pageant. The pageant is to be a musical and dance theatrical tourism attraction to celebrate the immigrant experience in the Eastern United States and how it related to the immigrants of Johnstown.
So instead of concentrating only on St. Columba, 1901 Church Inc. agreed to buy all three structures.
Marafino said St. Columba has a "beautiful mural that is historical in nature" and its canvas ceiling makes the acoustics desirable for the spoken word or theater productions.
Marafino added that when Hurst first consulted her about the theatrical project, "he didn't know I had saved a church."
She was referring to her founding of 1901 Church Inc. in 2001 to save Trinity United Church of Christ in Jennerstown, the community's only 100-year-old structure, from being torn down. It was moved a quarter mile to its location along U.S. Route 30 and is being used by Mountain Playhouse.
Now 1901 Church Inc. is working to conserve another piece of history.
"It's been a three-year process," said Father Alan Thomas, pastor of Resurrection Parish. "It's what we hoped for. It is the best outcome that the buildings are going to be used for something else."
Marafino said acquiring the properties "is exciting but a responsibility, too."
The Steeples Project seeks to raise $265,000 during the next two years to conserve the former churches and make them viable again.
Hurst said the funds are needed to pay Resurrection Parish, maintain the buildings, insurance and to advance the planning process. The parish is self-financing a three-year mortgage for 1901 Church Inc.
The first building expected to be used is the former Immaculate Conception.
Marafino said about $5,000 is needed to satisfy basic code regulations (such as exit signs, emergency lighting and a ramp) for the building.
"It's very important to get these buildings up and running," she said.
Hurst said initial plans are to use it as a reception hall or musical performance hall but its occupancy will be limited to 99 people until a sprinkler system is installed.
"That's a big challenge," he said.
SS. Casimir and Emerich has a commercial kitchen and is the only building with a basement, Marafino said. Concepts for it range from a food market to an incubator kitchen to a restaurant.
Tony DeGol, secretary for communications for the diocese, said in the early days of the merger, the diocese's vision for Cambria City was to preserve the former church buildings with the thought that they would be used for the arts and culture.
At the ceremonial transfer of the property, he read a portion of a letter written by now Bishop Emeritus Joseph V. Adamec in February 2009 regarding the merger of the parishes.
It says in part: "My dream is that the new parish will somehow be a key to the revitalization of the Cambria City area - not just the church. ... Perhaps in some way, with someone's vision and financial resources, the unused church buildings can serve the community in the areas of culture, education and economy. That, too, would praise the Lord."
Task forces are being formed to help decide in what ways the buildings can be used to serve the community. Marafino said volunteers are needed to serve on the task forces - to be visionaries for each one.
"Each church has different challenges," Hurst said.
Helping to raise funds for the venture will be Friends of The Steeples Project. Formerly Save Our Steeples, it organized in 2008 in response to the announcement that the five parishes would be merged. The group raised money that paid for a consultant, Partners for Sacred Places of Philadelphia, and a charrette (community visioning).
Save Our Steeples also provided the purchase down payment and covered other initial costs.
For more information on the project, visit www.steeplesproject.org.