Volunteers sought for project
Article and Photos by Karen Carr Keefe
Senior Contributing Writer
Work is underway to transform the historic St. Stephen’s “Old Church” building into its eventual role as the Grand Island cultural center.
The transformation is being accomplished through the hearts and hands of dedicated volunteers.
And they could use some more volunteer help.
Skilled workers (and those on a learning curve) are using hammers and saws to work a kind of modern-day miracle in the old church building.
The church has been decommissioned by the Catholic Diocese and is no longer a place of worship. The goal is for the former church, at 2106 Baseline Road, to be a meeting place for a variety of community groups and nonprofit organizations.
Two needs collided in an unusual and fortunate way about a year-and-a-half ago to bring about change.
The Knights of Columbus needed a new home and the old church needed a new purpose. Both pillars of the community were going through financial difficulties, and it turns out their leaders saw a way they could help each other.
The Knights of Columbus, Mary Star of the Sea Council 4752, a Catholic men’s service group, ran into financial difficulty in trying to maintain its hall at 1841 Whitehaven Road. The hall, home to the Knights meetings and events, also was available for community groups to rent, a revenue stream that narrowed to a trickle with COVID shutdowns. That, plus an annual property tax bill of about $8,000, made it infeasible to maintain the building, the Knights’ corporation in charge said.
Meanwhile, the “Old Church” was struggling with financial problems as well, and the parish was looking to divest itself of that ongoing cost. But the church building was serving as a meeting place for groups such as the Grand Island Neighbors Foundation and Boy Scouts.
Frank Burkhart is on the board of the Grand Island Catholic Club Inc., which had operated the Knights hall until it was sold in March. The Catholic Club is now steering the effort to repurpose the old church building.
“Our goal was to be able to provide a similar place to meet for people as we used to have at the Knights of Columbus,” Burkhart said Saturday, as he and other volunteers continued the work to ready the old church for its new use.
Construction has commenced inside the historic St. Stephen’s “Old Church” building.
Grand Island Catholic Club board member Frank Burkhart hands the ceremonial hammer to new at-large board member Mary Bobak during a work session Saturday in which volunteers continued renovations to turn St. Stephen’s “Old Church” into a community center.
Partners in volunteerism, Grand Island Catholic Club Chairman Chris Beyer, left, and board member Frank Burkhart, shake hands at the work site. They are among the volunteers who are renovating St. Stephen’s “Old Church” to become a community center.
He said the Knights’ hall served a need that still exists.
“That building was very valuable because people had small gatherings there, whether it’s a birthday party or a bereavement – so that’s being taken out of service in the community, and we would obviously lose a home for the Knights of Columbus there,” Burkhart said.
The Knights building, along with about nine acres of the land around it, was sold to parishioner James J. Panepinto, president of Pinto Construction Services Inc., and a longtime member of the Knights. The Knights, through the Catholic Club, are using the sale proceeds to repurpose, maintain and manage the old church.
Before the Grand Island Catholic Club 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. Once approved, the work could get underway.
Burkhart said, “The mission is to provide that kind of space here downstairs with what we’re doing in the first phase of the renovations, and then ultimately to take the church and make this kind of an income-producing opportunity that helps to provide that space – because the Neighbors Foundation and the Boy Scouts don’t have any income.”
The Knights of Columbus relies on membership dues as part of its revenue. They will be a tenant of the Catholic Club and pay rent, Burkhart said.
“Obviously this was a church, but we want this to have more of a broad-based appeal to people – it’s not just specifically limited to Catholics – it’s for the community. So, we’re trying to brand things in a way that makes it more community-based,” Burkhart said.
He noted there will be cultural activities taking place and a spirit of giving about the space, with the nonprofit, community groups and like-minded organizations carrying out their mission to the people of Grand Island.
The basement walls of the old church have been torn down to the original stone walls built by 40 dedicated parishioners in 1862. That church served as home to the parish until the new church was built in 1999 and dedicated in 2000.
Burkart said the most outward improvement is the recent replacement of the badly deteriorated roof. The work was done by “A” Best Roofing & Siding Inc., which, on Saturday, presented a check for $13,000 to the Catholic Club to help with the cost of ongoing work.
Edward Arida of “A” Best said the donation is for a good cause, and he and his brother have a strong connection to St. Stephen’s School: “My brother, Raymond, was in the first graduating class out of St. Stephen’s – ever. I was the second. So, we’ve been members of this community forever; and if it’s helping the community, that’s what we’re here for.”
The upstairs renovation for community use is phase 2 of the renovations.
Two new members, Mary Bobak and Maura Rustowicz, just joined the Catholic Club board as at-large members, and were on hand Saturday to witness the progress. They will serve on the Social and Charitable Engagement Committee.
The club will, in effect, be the caretakers of the building for the next 25 years, Burkhart said: “Members contribute in some way, either through their time and efforts, or through fully tax-deductible donations to our 501(c)(3) organization.”
Rustowicz said one of her strengths has always been fundraising, and that’s where she and fellow at-large member Bobak are heading.
“We’ve done some training already to get new ideas out there and hoping, when the time comes, we can get some good events going,” Rustowicz said.
“We just want to make sure that the whole community understands that we’re here for them,” Bobak said. “It’s not just the Catholics.”
Rustowicz added, “We also want to keep the historical aspect of the church alive, as well. It’s a beautiful building. Many of us got married here, baptized here, and we want to keep that spirit within the constraints of the remodeling.”
Burkhart said any renovations done will only have a minimal impact on the distinctive features that make the church beautiful. When the upstairs is redone, the plan is to retain the qualities the community treasures.
“The pews will go. The windows are going to stay, and the wainscoting is going to stay,” he said.
They will put down new flooring. The former altar area can serve as a stage for events and performances.
Rustowicz said the board had a recent discussion about keeping some of the original stone in the basement, from the windows up, now that the structure of the walls has been deconstructed.
“We wanted to keep some ambiance of what was,” she said. “We’re excited.”
Burkhart pointed to the half-dozen people who were working on Saturday.
“We need the community to support this in a volunteer way,” he said. “The first question people ask is ‘How long is it going to take – when will it be ready?’ Well, the answer we give them back is, ‘It depends how much help we get.’ We need that help in order to finish this in a reasonable amount of time.”
The Catholic Club said, in a news release, “While approximately $300,000 of the proceeds of the sale will cover the roof, elevator and electrical service, it will only be enough if we get significant donations of time and labor from members of the community.”
Right now, most of the labor has been provided by the Knights and Boy Scouts, the club said. “However, we need more help if we are to complete the work in a reasonable amount of time.”
They have asked that any member of the community who has any interest in helping to preserve the building as an asset to Grand Island “step up and volunteer to help. …
“While we would really appreciate skilled tradespeople or donations from businesses, anyone interested in being part of the rebuild is asked to volunteer. No skill is needed, just a desire to do something to help the community and maybe make some friends along the way.”
To volunteer or donate, call 716-773-4752 or email [email protected].
Mary Bobak, left, and Maura Rustowicz shake hands as they begin their term as new at-large members of Grand Island Catholic Club Inc., which is managing the renovation of St. Stephen’s “Old Church” as it is transformed into Grand Island Cultural Center.
Edward Arida, left, of “A” Best Roofing & Siding of North Tonawanda donates a check for $13,000 to Grand Island Catholic Club Chairman Chris Beyer to assist the project to transform the St. Stephen’s “Old Church” into a community center. The Catholic Club is managing the renovation project that is funded, in part, by the sale of the hall that was the home to Knights of Columbus Mary Star of the Sea Council No. 4752.