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Planning for a Resurrection

A closing South End church collaborates with the community to ensure a future for the historic building

by Darryl McGrath on August 4, 2011

 

Look around any of downtown Albany’s neighborhoods, and you will find the stories of the city’s immigrants, told by the churches left behind as second and third generations grew up and departed.

And so it is with the Evangelical Protestant Church at the intersection of Clinton and Alexander streets in the South End. It was built by German immigrants in 1874, and its unexpectedly graceful spire remains a soaring landmark in this working-class neighborhood.

The congregation that once filled the Evangelical Protestant Church has dwindled to 30 members. The church—which has kept its old German name but which has long been part of the United Church of Christ—will hold its last service Sept. 18.

And in a move that local activists and leaders are praising as extraordinarily proactive, the remaining church members have asked their South End neighbors and community organizations to help decide the fate of this humble but elegant red-brick building.

The congregation’s outreach is especially important in light of last month’s collapse and demolition of the long-vacant Trinity Church in the Mansion Neighborhood.

“I’m very impressed that they’re taking this action and bringing in the stakeholders,” said Susan Holland, executive director of the Historic Albany Foundation, who attended the July 25 meeting about the future use of the church, along with a dozen other community leaders.

The goal, church leaders say, is to keep the building in use and find a way to finance what may be a five-figure repair bill—mostly for water damage from leaking downspouts and deteriorated masonry. The church might be sold or leased; it might continue to be used as a house of worship; it might house arts programs and community activities; or it might be used as a combination church and community center.

The gathering included representatives of Habitat for Humanity, a prison ministry, other downtown congregations, the Albany Police Department and the three Common Council members whose wards include or border the church neighborhood.

“I’m very inspired by the meeting,” said Councilman Lester Freeman, who represents Ward 1, where the church stands. “I believe we’re moving in the right direction. Either way, [the church] is going to be utilized. It’s just a matter of logistics.”

Threaded through all the discussions about how to save the building is the memory of its last minister, the Rev. John Miller, who served at the Evangelical Protestant Church from 1986 to his death in September 2010. Miller was known as a compassionate and impassioned leader, who opened the church as a base of operations for a range of community services and whose ties and prominent connections in Albany reached far beyond the South End.

Church member Bernie Mulligan, a longtime NEA and NYSUT union activist in the Capital Region, invokes Miller’s ecumenical mission for the church when he speaks about the building’s future. “In John’s spirt, we certainly want this building to continue as part of the community,” Mulligan said. “We’re all committed to John’s work, so keeping this church is just part of what John wanted us to do.”

To ensure that the building remains part of that mission, the congregation and its supporters are seeking a way to pay for repairs. Freeman said Rep. Paul Tonko’s office is helping research renovation grants that might be available, and other community leaders are pooling ideas for funding sources. Repairs are not the only issue: Given the age of the building, it needs to be made more energy efficient to reduce maintenance costs.

“You see the peeling paint, the leaks—but it is a beautiful sanctuary,” said Karl Barbir, a Siena professor and president of the recently dissolved Evangelical Protestant’s church council. “We just couldn’t afford to keep it going. We’re paying $15,000 a year just to heat the place.”

Cara Macri, the director of preservation services at Historic Albany, recently toured the building. The plain brick exterior belies the rich Gothic Revival detail in the sanctuary, which has the unexpected detail of painted cast-iron columns instead of the usual wood, and decorative plaster in the arches. The plaster is badly deteriorated, but Macri said the church can be repaired.

“The building is nowhere near where Trinity was when it collapsed,” she said. “This building is not neglected; it’s more deferred maintenance. There’s a few key spots, and if they’re done, this building will stand forever.”