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A new vision at St. Cecilia

Betsy Miller, co-chair of the St. Cecilia “Our Faith, Our Future” campaign, holds an architectural rendering of the church’s new faith education center. The two-story L-shaped building, at the corner of Madison Avenue and High School Road, would feature offices, a library and meeting rooms as well as St. Cecilia Catholic School.  - Brad Camp/Staff Photo
Betsy Miller, co-chair of the St. Cecilia “Our Faith, Our Future” campaign, holds an architectural rendering of the church’s new faith education center. The two-story L-shaped building, at the corner of Madison Avenue and High School Road, would feature offices, a library and meeting rooms as well as St. Cecilia Catholic School.
— image credit: Brad Camp/Staff Photo

The parish plans to replace its aging hall with a new faith center.

The history of St. Cecilia Catholic Church is characterized by cycles of gathering, growth and expansion that have left its hallowed halls near bursting.

“When the large group of Communicants went to the Altar rail the floor would shake and vibrate and a feeling of uneasiness would prevail as the people wondered if the church was about to collapse,” wrote late island historian Katy Warner.

Warner was describing the first St. Cecilia, a tiny one-room schoolhouse purchased in Winslow in 1910. But the current congregation has undergone similar growing pains in its struggle to operate within the confines of Esterman Hall, the 1949 structure at the corner of Madison Avenue and High School Road.

The hall, extended in the 1950s with a handful of trucked-in World War II army barracks, can no longer accommodate the needs of a congregation that is 900 households strong. And not only is the facility too small; it’s structurally unsound.

“It’s literally falling apart,” said John Hempelmann.

He and parishioner Betsy Miller have taken the reins of the St. Cecilia “Our Faith, Our Future” capital campaign, which aims to raise $6.2 million for the design and construction of a new faith education center on the site of Esterman Hall.

Right now, the church offices and education programs, as well as the entirety of St. Cecilia Catholic School, reside in a warren of pieced-together structures and yards accessible through a cryptic series of interior and exterior entry points.

The roof leaks, the walls are peeling and the plumbing and heating systems are outdated and inefficient.

The old sanctuary serves as both the main conference area and a primary hallway. The “private” conference room doesn’t have a fully constructed fourth wall. And much of the space is not wheelchair accessible.

“Social justice issues are not being addressed,” said Janice Moehring, the campaign’s assistant director. “It’s not very inclusive.”

As Esterman Hall’s infrastructure declines, the volume of St. Cecilia’s educational and outreach programs grows. Moehring said the regular bible study group is “bursting at the seams.” And the weekly religious education classes offered to kids from other schools have to be conducted in two shifts.

“It’s not only age but also growth that’s necessitating this effort,” Miller said. “We just can’t accommodate all the things that have to go on.”

The parish vision is to demolish the entire Esterman Hall complex and the barracks and construct a two-story, multipurpose building for offices, a library and meeting spaces for ministries and outreach programs.

New classrooms would house evening and weekend religious education classes as well as the school, which currently serves grades pre-K through 6 and will expand over the next two school years to serve grade 7 and then grade 8.

“The building would accommodate all of those functions,” Hempelmann said. “And it would be very efficient because we’d be sharing the space for many purposes and therefore sharing the cost of utilities and maintenance.”

According to Miller, the parish council first articulated the need for the new building four years ago, then went about the process of “getting the okays.”

The primary hurdle was the property’s residential zoning, which would have required the church to obtain a zoning variance before undertaking construction. However, the church got a boon when the city’s 2004 Comprehensive Plan included its corner in the mixed-use Madison Avenue District.

“That allowed us to build what we want to build without special use permits,” Hempelmann said.

On Sunday, the planning committee held an “Our Faith, Our Future” launch event to build fundraising momentum. But having already raised over $2 million through what Hempelmann calls “pacesetter gifts” of $10,000 to $1 million, the church has nearly met the minimum $2.4 million needed to start construction.

The project’s “challenge goal” is $5.45 million, which combined with other funds on hand would fully cover the $6.2 million project cost and enable St. Cecilia to emerge debt-free.

Having pursued pacesetter gifts since January, campaign volunteers are now ready to solicit “advanced” gifts of $5,000 to $50,000. May will bring the “community gift” phase reaching out to everyone in the parish. Miller says that the church fully expects to complete its fundraising effort by July of this year.

Parish groups will then meet to finalize the building’s usage requirements, bring in an architect to draw up the plans, solicit construction bids, demolish the old building and get to work. Moehring says they hope to begin “de-construction” in summer 2008 and move into the new facility 12 to 15 months later.

“We are off to a phenomenal start,” Hempelmann said.

Conceptual drawings of the new facility show an L-shaped building with a courtyard facing the sanctuary and Conger Hall. Hempelmann said the church may also hold future campaigns to build a gym and auditorium.

The building’s final design will, however, depend on the success of “Our Faith, Our Future.”

“We’re praying for manna from heaven,” Miller said.

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