Seeking to build what’s best for congregation, neighborhood
By Joshua Maloni
Though a new entrance and gathering space is not far from opening, and concrete has been poured for new outdoor spaces, it’s what’s not happening at The Chapel’s Niagara Falls campus that has taken on more significance.
You see, one year ago, the staff had a list of upgrades sought for the former Niagara Catholic High School – including a wedding space in the former chapel and a new cluster of offices near the former front entrance. But instead, that area – what was the main school hallway – is sectioned off.
In addition, the classrooms are still closed, and the gymnasium is being used for storage.
“We realized, ‘You know what, we don't really need this grand office space for us, right now, with a handful of us; so, we kind of just moved into some other area (in the former senior hallway),” Pastor Jonathan Drake said. “We're just kind of waiting on what are the needs of this congregation, and what are the needs of this community.
“So, we had an idea, but then we decided, ‘No, let's not just plow ahead because we've got this idea. Let's use the space. Let's get in.’ And that's what this year has been: learning. You know, ‘OK, what are we doing? What do we need? What makes sense?’ Because, at the end of the day, these things cost dollars – and resources are not unlimited. We have to be wise.
“We've got money to do the project. We just want to make sure we're doing the right thing at the right time. So, we're kind of holding off on that.
“We'd also hoped to find more partners … to use some of this building as a multitenant nonprofit. And that's been a challenge, too, honestly, just in this COVID and post-COVID world. Finding partners that are ready to make that jump, or ready to expand, or ready to add a second or a third location – and using our space to do that – we've had a lot of really good conversations, but nothing that has yet materialized.
“Still holding that open. Just saying, ‘OK, well, in the right time, it'll happen.’ But we don't want to force it. We don't want to do a force fit.”
When Drake spoke of the campus a year ago – the main structure, an annex, and the former St. Dominic Savio building – he said the goal was to team with likeminded, community-oriented partners.
“We've had some good conversations that, some have even progressed to, like, ‘Alright, let's draft up some terms.’ And then, for whatever reason, it just doesn't happen,” Drake said. “And that's OK. It’s not like we have to do that. It's just something we desire to do because we look at it like this: God gave us this property; he allowed us to have this property; and we want to use it wisely for him. And we also don't need 85,000-square-feet for ourselves.
“Even recently, I’ve got to tell you Gary Hall, our neighbor, he's such a great friend and great neighbor to us, and the work that he and his son, who is the director of the (Ralph C. Wilson, Jr.) Community Center, they do such great work. And so even now, we're continuing conversations about are there ways for us to work together, since we're right next door. I'm looking forward to seeing where that goes. And I know Gary is, as well. He's tremendous.”
The former Niagara Catholic High School cafeteria has been converted into a worship center – and even has a stage that was previously hidden behind a wall.
Being the Body of Christ
Regardless of the construction schedule, Drake said, “I know the neighbors are grateful that we’re there, because many of them have shared that they worried what would happen to this building, and how long it would sit empty, to be honest. Hopefully, we've been able to not just remove that fear, but also be good neighbors. It's not just, ‘OK, well, at least it's not empty,’ like the bare minimum. But, hopefully, we've made a positive impact on their lives.
“And there are some cool stories of just getting to know neighbors in the community, 66th, 67th, etc. Government officials that I've spoken to, city, school, school district officials, leadership that I've gotten to know, the general tenor is, ‘We're really grateful that you guys are here.’ So, that's always encouraging to hear. But we don't want to just say, ‘OK, well, that's good. Now we don't have to make an investment in the community.’ No. If anything, that's our inspiration to keep going, is, ‘OK, this is what we're supposed to do. And this is where we're supposed to do it.’ ”
In September, “We went to Harry Abate for this serve day, and we had probably 80 volunteers that spent a Saturday sprucing up their courtyard at Harry Abate, and working on some benches that they had around; some trees that the kids would sit at. It was such a cool day, and our church is, of course, elated just to do it. The administration was so appreciative; you know, school board members coming by and thanking our congregants for giving up a Saturday. And the principal and administrative leadership is all there and saying thanks, and chipping in. It was cool.”
The Chapel’s first service on 66th Street was Dec. 19, 2021. It took place in the former cafeteria – which, by the way, had a hidden stage that was found and reopened.
“We've been meeting there since. We started with one service. We went to two services in February,” Drake said.
Prior to opening, services were held at the nearby Regal Cinemas.
As was the case with most churches, some members left during the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. Not everyone has returned, “But we've been really encouraged to see a bunch of new people; that their first encounter with The Chapel, at all, was on 66th Street,” Drake said. “Like they’ve never even been to Getzville (the main campus). Their first exposure to our church is actually this facility in Niagara Falls, which is the goal.
“We were hoping to connect with unchurched people who didn't have a church home, because we're not trying to just move the sheep around from one building to another. You know, we want to reach people who are unconnected, disconnected from a church, or who have never even looked for something like that. So that's been encouraging to see.”
The inside and outside of the former weight room will look totally different this winter.
What’s in the Works
As The Chapel team seeks input from congregants as to what, when, where, and how to reshape the Niagara Falls campus, renovation plans continue to take shape.
“We're still doing it in phases,” Drake said.
•Entryway: Right now, the entrance is at the former senior class hallway, leading to the worship center (former cafeteria), the annex and adjoining building – where children’s classrooms were installed.
A new main entryway – at the former weight room – is set to open this winter.
It will be closer to the parking lot and, as Drake said, “a larger space for people just to hang out and congregate after the worship service is over – instead of just, you know, ‘Alright, well, I guess we're going to our car.’ That sort of thing.”
Once complete, the lobby area will have a coffee station, new bathrooms and, in warmer months, outdoor seating.
•Kids Zone: Speaking of the children’s wing, “The kids love it,” Drake said. “And even just a week ago, Sunday, a family in our church brought their son over, and they weren't sure – like, ‘Is he going to like it? Will he be able to go in, and we'll be able to go worship in the other room?’ They reported to me, ‘Oh, he loved it! He can't wait to come next Sunday.’ So, I was like, ‘OK, that's good.’ That means we've created spaces that kids love and feel safe and welcomed and cared for. And this little guy, he's probably not even 2.
“It's going well, and I'm grateful for a church that values investing in the next generation. I'm glad to be a part of a church like that.”
•Gymnasium: Though the rec room was projected to be remodeled in a later construction phase, “We've thought a lot about it, actually, and even changed kind of our approach, to try to think about how to use the space best – and that's why I'm grateful that we didn't just renovate it all, and then move in,” Drake reiterated. “It served us well to pause and to reflect and listen, and also listen to our congregation, see who's coming.
“We're not in a spot today that, from an attendance standpoint, we need to expand our worship space. I've got some ideas about maybe some minimum thresholds, from an attendance standpoint, that if we're consistently bumping up against these numbers, either in the adult space or in the children's space, to be honest, because the kids don't come alone – they bring parents with them. So, if we're bumping into space in the children's wing, that may also tell us something.
“We're not there yet. If we were having another conversation a year from now, and there were another 100 people regularly coming, then I'd probably say, ‘Yeah, it's probably time for us to build out that space.’
“We're looking at maybe using that very large footprint of stage and gymnasium, trying to figure out a way to have a good-sized worship center – probably in the neighborhood of seating 350 to 400 people – that probably would be sufficient. And again, to keep everything at two services, two worship times, and all that. And if we could also have some sort of sports court that’s not a full, regulation, collegiate NCAA, ‘March Madness’-size tournament court, but have something that, again, before or after church, families can come. The adults are drinking their coffee, and the kids are shooting hoops or something like that.”
•Football field: In the summer, passersby could see football games while driving past the campus on the thruway that overlooks the campus.
“It's cool because it's not something we're doing, but something that we've partnered with a youth athletic league to do,” Drake said. A local youth football league has “taken really good care of it. And they are so appreciative. They're ideal tenants, if you will, because they are so respectful of the property. They take good care of it. They take pride in it. And we're happy, because it's being used, and I know families are appreciative.”
Metal shielding is protecting the former classroom wing.
•Protective shielding: One thing Niagara Catholic alumni have commented on, of late, is the metal framework now enrobing the former main classroom wing.
Drake said, “We love this building. We think it's fantastic. And also, it had major issues. … These windows were not energy-efficient. Many of them were compromised through the years, which, that happens when you've got teenagers around, right? And the red paint wasn't in good shape all the way around.
“And also, that was Niagara Catholic’s colors. We weren't trying to pretend to be Niagara Catholic, either.
“We made that choice, primarily, for security, and also preservation. We didn't want it to deteriorate any further.”
He noted, “We started with the roof to prevent any further leaking – in a lot of areas. We redid the entire roof, and then created this protective cover frame, a new exterior wall.”
Drake explained, “What we're hoping to do is create something that almost would kind of blend in behind that front tree line. We hope it would fade into the background and not even be a focus point.
“Now, Niagara Catholic students, for their whole lives, they're used to looking at the building. They're used to looking beyond the trees. But we were hoping that it would just kind of be something that would blend in – and then, as we develop that space, the opportunity to cut in new windows is there; so, it won't look like a data center forever. …
“We've kind of mothballed that space. We're using it as storage. We had some talks with partners about, ‘Hey, could that space be used?’ And again, we're still in the waiting phase on that.
“So, I totally understand that an alumni would be thinking, ‘Man, I'd like it to not look like just a big piece of steel.’ At the same time, we wanted to ensure that we were protecting this building from further damage. Especially if a partner would come in; they'd be like, ‘Oh, man, you guys really let this go to waste.’ We didn't want that.
“It looks way better in the summer, because the trees are in full bloom – and they're beautiful. But yeah, I totally understand where they're coming from.”
What used to be a computer classroom is now used for overflow on busier Sunday mornings.
Volunteers attended a dinner/decorating event Wednesday night at The Chapel.
The Chapel has services at 9 and 11 a.m. each Sunday. Following in-house worship, the message is either given on-site, shared amongst campuses, or livestreamed from the main facility at 500 CrossPoint Parkway in Getzville.
In this Christmas season, “We're going to do a winter festival,” Drake said. “That's an open invite – you don't have to be a part of our church to come and enjoy this winter festival. That'll be on Friday, Dec. 9, from 6-9 p.m. And that's right at our facility.”
The event will include games, activities, cookie decorating and food.
“Our Christmas Eve service times are Saturday, Dec. 24. And that will be at 9 a.m. and 11 a.m., as well. We're not meeting on Christmas Day. We're moving everything back just one day, to Saturday. And we made that move to Saturday morning because we want to encourage people who, in our church, ‘Hey, invite someone; hey, invite your neighbor; hey, invite a friend to come with you.’ And we wanted to do that at a time that would be favorable to people's schedules.
“I know our church would show up in the afternoon or the evening, but maybe someone who's not quite connected to church, or not that interested but maybe would be on the fence about coming, they might say, ‘No, I think I'll watch a football game that day.’ And so, we wanted to structure our service times in a way that would allow our church to invite their friends and loved ones and family to be able to join them for Christmas Eve, and celebrate with us.”
The following weekend, “We'll meet on New Year's Day,” Drake said. “It may look a little different that day. We may have one service. Maybe not at 9 (laughs), since most people will probably be up pretty late.”
Visit The Chapel’s Niagara Falls campus at 520 66th St., or online at https://thechapel.com/.
Pictured with one of The Chapel's Christmas trees are: Judy Resnick, Angela Rupple and Darcy Fesmire.