Pastor hopes to have congregation on site for Christmas Eve service
By Joshua Maloni
The former Niagara Catholic High School building, at 520 66th St., has sort of resembled Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory since it closed in the summer of 2018. Tremendous work has taken place inside – out of view from the general public – with great expectations in place for what might be when The Chapel reopens the site in the near future.
Pastor Jonathan Drake recently provided this writer and Class of 1997 alum a tour of the grounds. Much has changed since the Getzville-based mega-church purchased the property from the Diocese of Buffalo in 2019.
“We wanted to start with what did we need to get in, and get using the space,” Drake said.
In the main building, most of the construction has taken place in the former senior class hallway.
Going down that corridor, from the outside entrance to the cafeteria, alumni and those familiar with the building will first notice a new floor, lights and a color scheme.
“Once we took out those lockers and put it in a new ceiling, it was like, ‘Oh, my goodness; it's like a different place,’ ” Drake said.
On the gymnasium side, one larger classroom was divided into four smaller spaces, which will temporarily serve as offices. Eventually, small youth groups will meet here to discuss a Sunday message in “comfortable chairs and warm, inviting environments to have a conversation,” Drake said.
A handful of new, single-occupancy bathrooms were installed.
Across the hallway, “This is going to be another meeting room that probably will be used mostly by students, eventually. We'll have a Ping-Pong table and a couch, TV and video games.” New windows were installed here, too.
Continuing down the passageway, the cafeteria has been transformed into the church’s main gathering space and worship center.
“We’ll be able to get about 200 chairs in here,” Drake said.
A bank of windows was replaced. Eight windows were installed and feature motorized shades to aid in video projection. The former lunch receiving line is long gone, and the kitchen has been modified to suit the needs of a caterer.
Interestingly enough, when The Chapel staffers first looked into renovating the cafeteria, they noticed an unusual wooden wall on the backside of the room.
“ ‘Why is this little indent here?’ ” Drake recalled. “That’s what we were looking at. And then the classroom behind it was two steps up. We said, ‘Why would a classroom have two steps up?’ Then one of our people figured out, ‘Oh, there's a stage here.’ So, we opened it back up; kind of restored it to what I would imagine, at some point, maybe they just used it as a small assembly space with an elevated platform? We redid that, of course, but basically the bones of it are what it was.”
That platform now includes a green room (hospitality) for musicians, as well as space for instruments and tech. It also has an Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant ramp.
“On Sunday mornings, everyone high school-aged and up is in the main worship center,” Drake said. “Middle school has a separate environment that’s age-appropriate. And then, children birth through fourth grade has subdivided groups” that will meet in the adjoining building – but more on that in a moment.
A new wall was put in place to separate the senior walkway from the main hallway and entrances, which will be updated down the road.
This is part of phase one.
Church members and guests will enter The Chapel’s Niagara Falls location via the former senior hallway. Once inside, they will worship and be taught in the former cafeteria.
“We're doing this in phases, because we plan to grow into the space,” Drake said. “Our congregation, before COVID, was about 250 people. And the Regal (Cinemas, where they meet weekly) was closed for 15 months. But then, since we've kind of reopened, about half – so, about 120ish, which is great. No complaints, of course. But we anticipate, OK, probably there's been a wave of people that have returned. ‘As soon as the doors are open, we're going to be back,’ you know? And then there's probably another wave that's going to see how it goes. And then we’ll see how that proceeds. But we expect to grow with the space.”
Reuse of Middle School Building
The Chapel services, including worship and teaching, run about 80 minutes. It’s during that time middle-school and younger youth need to be supervised. Of course, the goal is not to just babysit them, but, as the Bible says, train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it.
That’s where the remainder of phase one comes into play: in the former annex and into the old, two-story St. Dominic Savio classroom wing.
Over in that building, “Our space here is where we're going to have our children's ministry,” Drake said. “On Sunday mornings, when mom and dad or grandma and grandpa are in the worship space, here's a spot for the little ones to be cared for and do what kids are made to do – and that is make noise.”
The drop-off process begins at a secure check-in counter, so as to ensure each child’s safety.
Youth will have stories and songs. Donated toys accent additional classrooms, where bright colors and more comfy seats can be found.
Those elementary-school-aged will be taught in what’s called “King’s World,” which is another theater space. Posters on the walls emphasize being kind and compassionate to others.
There is a room for students in grades five through eight that includes a foosball table. Middle school students can expect “songs and an age-appropriate message,” Drake said.
Younger children will be cared for and taught in the former St. Dominic Savio building.
In addition, “We're going to have a designated space for children and students with special needs,” Drake noted.
He explained, “We have three families right now, in a church just of our size – just 110 or 120 – three families that have a child with special needs.”
He added, “You can't do a program like that unless you've got an all-star volunteer team. A couple of our staff have been trained. One of our staff, her degree was in special needs education.”
A portion of the wing will be earmarked for nonprofits to rent space. It has a dedicated entrance, five identical units, and a larger community conference room that can be reserved for lunch meetings and the like.
Drake said, “The goal would be to have those (rooms) outfitted with partners.”
The second floor will house building mechanicals and is not earmarked for public use.
Future Phases – Weight/Locker Rooms, Gymnasium, Chapel, High School Hallways
A future renovation phase will include the former workout space and locker room adjacent to the gymnasium.
“This is what we're hoping to do during the winter time, and that is to create a brand-new entrance,” Drake said of the weight room entryway. “We’re going to add two more sets of doors there. We're going to add another bank of multiuse bathrooms here. More traditional men's and women's. A little café. They're starting to mark out where they're going to frame, which is great. So, grab a cup of coffee, bathrooms, family restroom, changing table and all that. This will be more of like a lobby, kind of congregating, hang out after church, catch up with friends, wait for your kids to be done.”
In the meantime, the entrance will be the door leading to the former senior hallway.
The former senior hallway will be the temporary entrance point until a new welcome center is built in the former weight room.
The gymnasium itself will be tackled at a later date, as the floor has to be replaced.
“Eventually, the goal would be, as the congregation grows, to say, ‘OK, well, we're outgrowing that 200-seat room. This could be a 400- to 500-seat room,” Drake said. “And we have a flexible use. Perhaps it’s even a gym-atorium like it was – which is part of what we were so attracted to is, ‘Man, look at the flexibility of this space.’
“We'd have to do something with the floor anyway; but it's a great, great space.”
Outside of the gym doors, the former main office was gutted, and the prayer chapel remodeled.
“We just wanted to start with a clean slate in here for the office space,” Drake said. “So, we'll have our church offices here, a conference room. And then we're going to refresh the prayer chapel, and make it a flexible space for either weddings and funerals of about 150-seat capacity, maybe 140. Or it can be like another classroom space. People who want to take a new-believers class or a membership class or something of that nature.”
New widows will maintain the natural light coming into the room. Unfortunately, the stained-glass windows had seen better days and couldn’t be salvaged.
“We'll have a room that's here that can be used by brides, when we have a wedding, which will be really nice,” Drake said. “So, in addition to (the existing) doors, they'll be a grand set of double doors for the bride to come down the aisle.”
A bathroom will be added to accommodate the bride-to-be.
“We do enough of those things that we want to think through it all,” he said. “But yeah, this is all kind of next after we move in. This is what we're hoping to develop next.”
The former main hallway (above) and the old prayer chapel.
The former high school’s two-story classroom hallways are pretty much the same as they were when Niagara Catholic closed.
“Lots of people have come to me with ideas,” Drake said. “Of course, we’ll entertain those ideas. We want the building to be a blessing to the neighborhood. … We think that the church brings a certain blessing to the neighborhood, just by being the hands and feet of Jesus. That's just who we should be. But there's other agencies that are either, we would call them kingdom-minded, like, have their mind on the kingdom of God and helping spread the good news. Or, at the very least, like-minded, in that they want to make a positive impact on the community. We're talking to a lot of those agencies, and we look to have more of those conversations.”
Drake said, “We don't need 85,000 square-feet for our church. We wanted to take this project on, and the hope would be that we’ll be able to find like a multi-tenant nonprofit use for some of the space. We're probably going to end up using about 25 to 30,000.”
Speaking of the football field, Drake said “it needs a little TLC,” but, “We would like to see it used.
“We actually had one little league football team use it this fall, which was great. And we'd like to do things – sports ministry, too – use sports as a way to serve the neighborhood. …
“Again, when you've got 85,000 square-feet and 10 acres, it's a lot to bite off. I would say a lot of things we've dreamed about, we just want to make sure we're not taking it on too soon or rushing.”
Investing in Niagara Falls
A move to NC won’t take place until all phase one components are in place, ready to operate, and given a certificate of occupancy by the City of Niagara Falls. Drake said he’s hopeful to have the congregation on site for the Christmas Eve service.
With more than 80 people from the area attending church at The Chapel’s Getzville location, it made sense to branch out to Niagara Falls. The Chapel began serving the Cataract City in March 2019. It rents five theater rooms at the nearby Regal Cinemas for Sunday morning service and children’s programming.
Drake said Niagara Falls was selected for a satellite campus because “the potential here for spiritual revitalization is huge” – as it is with branches in Cheektowaga and Lockport. “These are not overly affluent areas. We could have probably put a campus in Lewiston, Clarence and East Aurora. But our goal was where is the need. Where's the greatest need? And even just right here in LaSalle, there's not a ton of churches – like, not a ton at all. So, our conviction is where could we go and help bring the light of the gospel. There's no need to bring a candle right next to another candle. It would be like, well, then there's no difference, actually.
“We want to go where we can help. And we don't have any delusion of, ‘OK, now The Chapel’s here; everything's going to be fixed.’ That's not it at all. But we believe God's already at work in this area, and we want to find out how we can help do more of that. You know, find out what God's doing and join him. That's kind of our heartbeat.
“I think there's loads of potential. There's great need, and we're a church of resource; so, we've got some resources that we can hopefully make a difference.
“It's hard to start a church. And many people have found this to be the case. It's hard to start a church in an economically depressed area. Because just the sheer fact of how do you support that church to keep going? Well, what we remind ourselves often at The Chapel is something Jesus said: To whom much is given, much is required.”
Drake said, “We’re just eager to be a blessing to the neighborhood,” which has been “super-patient, super-kind.” “We’re really close. It’s like the last quarter-mile.”
Prior to leading this satellite location, Drake, 33, was the Lockport campus pastor for more than six years. He was excited to come to Niagara Falls, and has enjoyed working with the Regal Cinemas team.
“The Regal has been phenomenal,” he said. “Renny (Scheibel) is the general manager over there. He's been there since day one – and I mean day one of the Regal – like 2000. He's been awesome. We couldn't ask for a better arrangement to be working with him while we were kind of in this temporary, portable space. It's been a dream. He's been so gracious to us. … He’s gone above and beyond to make sure that we're comfortable. I really appreciate him. He's awesome.
“All that being said, we're just excited to move in.”
The Chapel intends to keep the alumni brick path in place.