Inside a church, a revival begins
Albany - Volunteers start renovation of city's historic St. Anthony's, with hopes of making it a space for community artists

By BRIAN NEARING, Staff writer

Volunteers tossed out years of accumulated debris Saturday from inside the vacant St. Anthony's Church in the Mansion neighborhood.

"We had enough to fill our first Dumpster, no problem," said Gabrielle Becker, a 22-year-old with a theater degree from Bard College. She's the driving force behind a not-for-profit neighborhood group that plans to convert the church into a community performance, arts and crafts center.

The reborn church could be another step forward for the historic neighborhood. Just down Green Street from the church, a Boston-based not-for-profit is investing several million dollars to restore 11 row houses.

Becker's group has an agreement with the Albany Roman Catholic Diocese to buy the church for $10,000. The sale is expected to close in November. Then, her group will start fund raising for its $250,000 budget to repair and renovate the building.

With Becker in the church's chapel on Saturday were young people on their hands and knees, scraping carpet adhesive to reveal hardwood floors. Becker's father, Larry, was ripping up old carpeting and dragging it to a heaping trash bin. Nearby, a couple of aged soda machines held empty cans that had burst and emptied long ago.

"I see so many things possible with this space," said volunteer Monique Roberts, a 22-year-old Delmar resident and Gabrielle Becker's former college roommate, as she took a break from her putty knife.

"When I grew up in Bethlehem, I didn't recognize how awesome this neighborhood is," Robert said. "I was living in New York City, but I came back to be involved with this. I'm very interested in the social aspects, of what we can offer the people in this neighborhood."

The red-and-yellow brick church, built in 1908 and topped by a bell tower, was a more simple working-class house of worship, in contrast to the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, with its imposing Gothic spires, on Madison Avenue.

In St. Anthony's heyday, the church was the focus of street festivals in a thriving Italian neighborhood. But after construction of the Empire State Plaza forced many residents to move, the parish withered before the diocese closed the church in 1973.

The inside of the church, while showing signs of visible decay such as falling plaster from a leaky roof and stains from years of pigeon droppings, is still a magnificent space.

The arched ceiling is about 30 feet from the floor. A choir loft at the front of the church overlooks an marble altar of gray, yellow and pink stone. Latin phrases painted in gold on a red background, and ornate plaster pillars, made to look like marble, ring the room.

Ellen Becker, Gabrielle's mother, said an Oct. 4 artists' gathering will be held at the church to seek ideas for the space. Artist Christine Frombgen, who lives on nearby Elm Street, is its sponsor.

Paolo Vidali, 21, was busy scraping carpet glue off the floor. The 21-year-old Syracuse native, who had cleared a 2-foot-square patch, paused and looked around. "The square footage of this is a little intimidating," he said, and then resumed scraping.

Information on volunteering for future work at the church is available by calling the Beckers' law office at 462-5814.

First published: 09/28/2004 [ Times Union ]

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