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By Michael J. Billoni
Senior Contributing Writer
The Knights of Columbus Mary Star of the Sea Council No. 4752 will use proceeds from the recent sale of its club building and nearly nine acres of land at 1841 Whitehaven Road to repurpose, maintain and manage the former St. Stephen’s R.C. “Old Church” at 2106 Baseline Road, the church and council announced this week.
Before the Grand Island Catholic Club Corp. could negotiate a 25-year lease at $1 per year for “The Old Church,” St. Stephen’s pastor, the Rev. Raymond G. Corbin, had to request the Diocese of Buffalo to “decommission” it as a house of worship. When the Most Rev. Michael W. Fisher, bishop of Buffalo, issued the necessary paperwork to St. Stephen’s, plans began to revitalize the building into the home of many Island organizations, such as Scouting, the Neighbors Foundation, and the Knights of Columbus Mary Star of the Sea Council No. 4752.
The little white church, built by 40 men of the parish, was completed in 1862, and served as the Island’s Roman Catholic church until construction began on the adjacent new church in 1999. Corbin said the parish finances needed to bring and maintain the old church far outweighed its usefulness for modern worship. To save the building for the future, a new purpose was sought, and the timing coincided with the Knights of Columbus’ need to sell its building and land. For the Mary Star of the Sea Council, over the past decade, maintenance costs and property taxes increased while the building’s use decreased – mostly because of the nearly three-year global coronavirus pandemic.
According to real estate records obtained through the Erie County Clerk’s Office, the sale of the Whitehaven Road property closed March 27. The site was acquired by James J. Panepinto, president of Pinto Construction Services, and a partner. Panepinto, a member of the Mary Star of the Sea Council, said he is pleased to see the funds from the sale go to renovate “The Old Church” building.
“That church has a special place in my heart, because that is where I married my wife, Lynn,” he said.
Panepinto also said his dad, George, a life-time Islander who is still involved with the family’s 91-years-young Pinto Construction Services business, was among the many Islanders who volunteered to help build the new church.
Corbin said he is extremely pleased with the end result: “Our goal had always been to give the structure and memories ‘The Old Church’ has among people a future. The building will now be given to the community for its use and enjoyment.
“It’s truly a ‘win-win’ situation for both the parish and our Grand Island community. The building is saved, and its exterior will remain as it is today, honoring the historical nature of ‘The Old Church.’ The interior will be updated for modern use, codes, and handicap accessibility, so it can be used for cultural events, productions and gatherings on the Island.”
According to a release from the Mary Star of the Sea Council, a meeting of its membership was held last July to explain its dire financial circumstances; discuss the situation; and present the option of selling the property, and utilizing the funds to renovate the historic church building into a home for the council and other community-based organizations. The membership voted unanimously to sell the property, and voted 37-3 to negotiate a long-term lease of the building with St. Stephen’s.
In exchange for the $1-per-year, 25-year lease for the building, the Grand Island Catholic Club Corp. will maintain, operate and renovate the structure for the use and benefit of the community – with the goal of creating a center for cultural activities in the Town of Grand Island.
The first phase of renovations is in the planning stage and include the replacement of the roof, an elevator to make all floors in the building wheelchair accessible, accessible rest rooms, and refinishing the ground floor of the building. These renovations will provide a permanent home for the Neighbors Foundation food pantry, and dedicated spaces for the Scout troops and Knights of Columbus Mary Star of the Sea Council No. 4752. There will also be a multipurpose room that will be used by these organizations and others.
Rich History of ‘The Old Church’
St. Stephen’s R.C. parish, the oldest and largest congregation on Grand Island, has a distinguished history of ministry to its residents. Before “The Old Church” was built, Mass was celebrated in the home of William Caroll Sr. Saint John Neumann said Mass for Island Catholics at the old sawmill on Whitehaven Road. In 1847, a traveling priest, the Rev. James Boyle, said Mass periodically, while also visiting Catholic communities in Niagara Falls, Lewiston and Youngstown.
For many years, Mass was said in different people’s homes around the Island. Numbers of parishioners continued to grow and, in 1861, Father Ulhrich, its original pastor, purchased 20 acres of land at the corner of Baseline and Whitehaven roads. Construction of the little white church began.
Forty men of the parish gave their labor and lumber with horses and wagons to help build the church. “The Old Church,” as we know it today, was completed in 1862, for a total cost of $673. The first sermon was preached in English, then translated into French and German. The total collection at its first Sunday Mass was $17.
The church was enlarged, as Island population grew, in 1948. The rectory, school and convent followed and, as the population continued to grow, a new, larger church was needed. Construction began in 1999, and the final cost was nearly $6 million. The new church would seat 1,000 people, a far cry from “The Old Church,” which sat 125.
History of the Knights of Columbus Mary Star of the Sea Council No. 4752
In 1960, land was purchased on Whitehaven Road and, with donations from membership, what is commonly known as The Knights of Columbus Hall was built as a home to the council and numerous community and family events. At that time, the Grand Island Catholic Club Corp. was formed, and it has owned and operated the facility ever since. Its goal has always been to maintain the facility for the good of the council and the Grand Island community.
The mandatory shutdowns associated with the pandemic, coupled with increased expenses, depleted cash reserves. The council’s board of directors recognized the situation had become unsustainable, and that the sale of the property was inevitable. However, in considering this inevitability, the board felt it was important to have a facility where the Grand Island community’s not-for profit organizations, such as the Knights, the Neighbors Foundation and Scout troops, could use it to carry on their works.
The timing of the St. Stephen’s decision last year to do something with “The Old Church” proved to be perfect timing for both organizations.
Frank Burkhart, a member of the Knights of Columbus board of directors, said, “While we have budgeted to have professionals do the work to replace the roof and construct the elevator, and have budgeted to purchase the materials to do the rest of the renovations, we are going to take a page from our ancestors, who originally built ‘The Old Church’ by relying on the same sense of volunteerism to provide labor to do the rest of the renovations.
“We would like to issue an open invitation to any community member who would like to be part of revitalizing the building to step up and volunteer. If interested, contact us by emailing [email protected], or by phone, 716-380-7608.”