Religious institutions have traditionally played an important role in helping to heal the nation at times of division. Even while closed during the pandemic, they have continued to offer comfort in the midst of so much loss and messages of hope.
Our Sacred Sites program held a Zoom meeting last Friday that illustrated how religious institutions impact the wider community and why we believe it is important to help maintain them.
The session focused on two recent grantees. St. Jean Baptiste on the Upper East Side and Mount Zion Evangelical Lutheran in Hamilton Heights in Upper Manhattan. Fundraising is difficult enough in normal times. Now congregations are closed because of COVID-19 and many members are out of work. But both churches are squarely facing the challenge.
St. Jean’s, a large Italian Renaissance Revival style church, was built as a French Canadian parish in 1912. Its all girls high school now serves predominately young women of color from lower income families. The church has had numerous restoration campaigns since 1987. Our grant is helping restore stained glass windows in the chapel and auditorium of the school. Fr. John Kamas, the pastor, went to St. Jean’s as a child and sees these restoration efforts as essential. “As a poor family, the church was the most beautiful space we went to,” he said.“ I want to pass something beautiful along.” Given the pandemic, the church plans to use a portion of what they raise to fund emergency tuition assistance at the school.
Mount Zion is a vernacular church built in 1888 with some 57 people at weekly services. Our $50,000 grant towards exterior masonry and window repairs is part of a $1.5 million campaign. COVID has prevented much of the planned fundraising and they may have to phase the project. But they have income from a parish building leased to a school and an unusual location going for them. “The church has a pleasant yard and is in a little park-like setting,” said architect Mick Doyle. “People stop and are interested in the work because it really will be a community asset.” The church also has another asset, longtime member Lula Urquhart. She’s part of the fundraising committee and very involved in the neighborhood. Her connections will help to garner community support.
The COVID onset prevented Sacred Sites staff Ann Friedman and Colleen Heemeyer from visiting each grant applicant as they normally do. “I always leave site visits feeling really inspired,” Colleen said. ”A big part of what we do is help congregations continue the food banks, immigrant assistance programs and cultural offerings. All of that is hard to do if the roof is about to fall in.”
We’re not sure how the pandemic will continue to affect Sacred Sites travel or the ability of congregations to raise money. This is the only statewide program in the country offering financial and technical assistance to landmark religious institutions. We’ve granted some $12 million to more than 820 congregations since 1986 and supported $716 million of total restoration work. But Sacred Sites depends on funders too. We’ll figure it out. Because, like Fr. Kamas, we also believe in passing beloved buildings along.