Cedar Park: Neighborhood Rehabs Church into Community Center

A stained-glass window in the Calvary Church.

The tallest building on Baltimore Avenue in Cedar Park neighborhood is the Victorian-style tower of the Calvary United Methodist Church. The building looks like something out of Notre Dame as it seems to look over the five-corner intersection on Baltimore Avenue.

Members of the Curio Theatre Company prepare a set in the Calvary Center.

The stately look of this building that was built in two parts in 1906, seemed to take you back to the early 20th Century. It has survived the changing demographics of this southwest Philadelphia corridor.

Like most of the large houses that surround it, the Calvary has a curious sense of a building that went unrivaled in beauty and prominence years ago.

But the building, which houses numerous cultural, religious and neighborhood organizations and events, has fallen into disrepair.

Ed Fell, a member of the board at the Calvary Center in charge of the building, said that in the 1970s many of the members of the congregation had died or moved away from the area, leaving congregation numbers far behind what they once were.

“We were going through a transition as a congregation and we neglected the building and you need something to attract people to come either in the ministry that you’re doing as far as music, or preaching or the building, and if you don’t have those ingredients people are going to go where they can be nurtured,” said Fell.

The void left a congregation of once over 500 members to a number that was unable to support the upkeep of the aging building.

The building was eventually put up for sale but could not sell due to the deterioration of the building and it location. The church lowered the price and even tried to sell the iconic Tiffany glass-stained windows, Fell said.

Concerned members of the community soon came together to form the Friends of Calvary, a group of residents who would seek a solution to the

A stained-glass window in the Calvary Church

problems that plagued the Calvary and save the building.

Focus groups were held to gauge the community’s feelings about the future of the building. The members decided that the building should be used as “church museum,” a community meeting space and a cultural and arts center.

The Friends of Calvary, while solid in its purpose of rehabbing the building, was a diverse group of community members with differing ideas on the use of the building’s ample space. In order to preclude any ambiguities in the direction of the building, the members created a democratic-like system in which members of the community and the church would vote on the interests of the building.

The church’s congregation also decided to stay and in 2000 the nonprofit Calvary Center for Culture and Community was born to repair the building.

The purpose of starting a nonprofit was meant to alleviate new challenges that came with expanding the use of the building. The nonprofit was necessary to manage capital because of its willingness to raise funds through grants.  Also, the nonprofit would serve as a way for non-church members, notably those of the community, to have a say in the rebuilding process. Another reason, the Calvary Center was used for non-religious purposes and would attract secular funders that would not give to a religious institution.

Fell said that since the mid-1980s the church has been what he termed a “reconciling church,” meaning that people from all walks of life are accepted. The church was once mainly full of whites; now it sees cultures and people reaching from different religions and regions of the world.

The church just celebrated its 25-year anniversary of becoming a reconciling church.

As of late the nonprofit has spent over $500,000 out of a total goal of $2 million on restorations to the building. Most of this money, said Fell, has come from grants from the city and most notably state Keystone Grants.

As you walk through the large 800-seat sanctuary that is now used for cultural and arts events, evidence of disrepair are apparent at the top of the large marble columns that reach to the balcony where wood appears to be chipped away from years of stress and ignored upkeep. The dome window that

hovers over the sanctuary looks in need of renovation.

While the disrepair remains, there is a bustle of movement throughout the halls and corridors of the building. The efforts of the board, the trustees and the citizens of the community breathe life into the area every day.

Fell has been a part of the congregation since 1984 and says that the building’s architecture and its dedication to community issues is what make the building and the Calvary Center important and the main reasons it should be preserved.

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