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Chris Beyer works on completing a room in the downstairs, basement area of the Grand Island Cultural Center, formerly St. Stephen's Old Church.
Chris Beyer works on completing a room in the downstairs, basement area of the Grand Island Cultural Center, formerly St. Stephen's Old Church.

St. Stephen's Old Church: The road from church to community center

Mon, Apr 22nd 2024 07:00 am

Article and Photos by Karen Carr Keefe

Senior Contributing Writer

The transformation is well underway for St. Stephen’s Old Church building to become the Grand Island Cultural Center (GICC).

The new mission for the old church is a labor of love for volunteers who faithfully devote hours on Wednesdays and Saturdays to the purpose of repurposing the now-commissioned church.

Volunteers bring their skill set – and learn new skills – to help the project succeed.

The historic and spiritual significance of the building is baked into the concept of welcoming helping agencies to help the community as a whole.

The work will ultimately provide a meeting place for a variety of community groups, service clubs and nonprofit organizations.

Frank Burkhart is on the board of the guiding organization, the Grand Island Catholic Club Corp. That group’s board is focused on revitalizing the historic church building so it can serve as a hub for cultural activities in the Island through the GICC, he said.

 “Our primary mission is to provide space for not-for-profits such as the Neighbors Foundation, the Knights of Columbus Mary Star of the Sea Council and Scout Troop 630 who will share use of the downstairs,” Burkhart said. “The multipurpose room downstairs will also be used to host social events to support the GICC and other charitable organizations.”

He said there have been inquiries from other service groups about the feasibility of holding meetings there.

Volunteer Dan Emanuel does prep work for an electrical outlet in the basement of the new Grand Island Cultural Center.


Burkhart said the Zonta Club of Grand Island would like to do some sort of community participation project for the Cultural Center, as has the Grand Island Rotary Club.

The work on the downstairs meeting space will hopefully be completed by the end of the summer.

“As we are on course to complete this phase of renovations, we will be turning to fundraising for repairs and renovations of the former church sanctuary space into a space to hold cultural events such as theatrical and musical performances, and other gatherings such as wedding receptions,” Burkhart said.

He explained the goal is to create a self-sustaining business model that maintains this historic building as an asset to the community for the duration of its 25-year lease. 

The upstairs projects are many, and include repairing deteriorating plaster, repainting, and fixing leaks such as the one near the historic Rose Window. There are big plans to transform the upstairs into a performance-type space, and hopes are fundraising will facilitate that, as well.

Seed money came from the sale of the Knights of Columbus building at 1841 Whitehaven Road to James Panepinto, president of Pinto Construction Services Inc. and a longtime member of the Knights.

David Goris stands in the current storage area for the Grand Island Neighbors Foundation. Goris is a member of the foundation and is a volunteer helping to transform the former St. Stephen's Old Church into the Grand Island Cultural Center.


Both the Knights and St. Stephen’s Old Church were struggling financially, and combining forces helped both entities. Community groups that met at the former Knights Hall can look forward to meeting instead at the GICC, the former Catholic Church.

Approximately $300,000 of the proceeds from the sale of the Knights building went to covering the roof, new elevator and electrical service at the new GICC.

The Catholic Club Corp. needs significant donations of time, labor and funds from the community, and grants to complete the project. While the basement work is nearing completion, the upstairs portion of the former church needs lots more work, Burkhart said.

Currently, two new bathrooms are being built. An elevator being installed by a contractor should be completed within a week. Previously, “A” Best Roofing & Siding Inc. installed a new roof and presented the Catholic Club Corp. a donation of $13,000 to help with the cost of ongoing work.

The old stone walls have been retained above newly installed windows and drywall in the basement meeting area. Soffits hide ductwork, and recessed lighting will brighten the downstairs area. A hospitality area is being constructed. A sound system is being built and there will be networking capabilities, Wi-Fi, a big-screen TV will be added, all to facilitate meetings and community activities. The space is taking on a new “personality” to suit its new purpose, volunteers noted.

A community club will be established, comprised of people who are interested in bettering Grand Island, Burkhart said. “It will be something where people can get involved, with the hope that we can do things like charitable activities.”

Beautiful historic aspects of the church also will remain in the upper former sanctuary area. This includes stained glass windows already in place, as well as the planned acquisition of artifacts, including the original bell from the historic St. Mary of the Sea Catholic Church, built as a summer church at the corner of Ferry and Orchard roads that opened in 1913.

St. Stephen’s parishioner Greg Worczak, a longtime electrical contractor, is helping in that capacity as a volunteer on the GICC project. He is helping to interface the fire alarm system with the elevator, Burkhart said.

Chris Beyer has taken a lead role, overseeing and guiding the ongoing construction.

“Chris is pretty much our full-time superintendent,” Burkhart said. Beyer used to have his own sheet metal company and was in construction for many years before he retired.

“He has the background to be able to manage the process here,” Burkhart said. “He’s done a great job of keeping everybody focused.”

“Everything’s going good,” Beyer said. “It’s coming together well. We’re all excited about the finished product.”

He described the best part of the work: “Working with the guys, all the volunteers. We’ve got a great crew here. We’re getting it done – sometimes twice,” he joked, “but we’re getting it done.”

Former Grand Island School Board president David Goris is involved in many phases of the construction work and is a member of the Neighbors Foundation. There’s a special room constructed downstairs for storage of the food and items to assist low-income members of the community. The sorting will be done in the community room.

Goris said he likes the new set-up that’s taking shape.

“I think it’s going to work out just fine,” he said. “We have three different areas down here. We have food stored. Now it’s all going to be consolidated in one room.”

He said it will be easier to keep track of donations and get bags of items together to distribute to the community on an on-demand basis for emergency assistance.

The Scouts helped in the demolition that was needed early on in the project, Burkhart said.

“We changed the board to have a seat on the board by the Neighbors Foundation so that they can help direct the activities and coordinate the activities with the other groups using the hall. Same with the Scouts,” he said.

Burkhart added there also are community-at-large members of the board.

“Right now, we have an opening on our board of directors that we’re looking to fill,” he said.

Those interested in applying can email [email protected].

The Grand Island Catholic Club Corp. is open for all members of the community who want to actively help, not just Catholics, Burkhart said.

It’s a cohesive and dedicated group of volunteers who have a common purpose and a vibrant camaraderie.

Greg Worczak does electrical work in the basement of the Grand Island Cultural Center.

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