Teenage gang members and drug dealers on Hamilton Hill looking to change their lives have won at least a short reprieve from the Roman Catholic Church.
The church will allow the Quest program to use the basement of Sacred Heart-St. Columba after the church closes this Sunday. But the church is up for sale at the relatively low price of $170,000 and there is no guarantee that the next owner of the property will be as willing to let the church’s “street-kids mission” continue within its walls.
Until a buyer comes along, Quest Executive Director Judy Atchinson plans to keep running her arts-and-intervention program, in which teens have painted intricate murals on the walls, written rap songs about the dangers of AIDS and occasionally gotten into the fights and shouting matches that make them so unwelcome in other youth programs.
Atchinson says she accepts “the children that others turn away,” and for 13 years they have filled her classes while their own children play at their feet.
“This is home to a lot of children who grew up here,” Atchinson said.
The church closure comes with some chaos — Atchinson had to move her office from the rectory to the church itself, which meant enlisting the aid of several children to help carry a freezer full of food for the daily dinners she serves.
The rectory is being closed so the church can reduce its insurance and heating bills, the Rev. Michael Hogan said.
Moving a freezer down a few flights of stairs was nothing compared to what Atchinson expected. She had prepared to move altogether before the church decided to let her stay. Now, she hopes to find a way to buy the building.
“This is probably one of the worst corners in the city and we need to be here,” she said.
She intends to petition the mayor to help finance the building as a community center for the impoverished neighborhood. If that fails, she hopes to find an agency that might partner with her to share the cost.
“It would make a great home for a theater company. The altar would make a great stage,” she said. “The Hill really needs something like that.”
But what it needs most, she said, is a community center large enough to handle big meetings, community festivals and activities for adults.
“The agencies are primarily aimed at children,” she said. “I’ve wanted to do a community center for a long time. We need a community center.”
Weed and Seed coordinator Marion Porterfield agreed.
“I think it’s needed, yes, absolutely,” said Porterfield, whose agency is designed to help “weed out” crime and then “seed” constructive activities throughout the neighborhood. “A community center could have room for all kinds of things, like a computer technology place for adults. I think there would be all kinds of uses.”
The building, which would be desanctified, could also resolve the venue complaints that inevitably arise when organizations try to schedule large meetings. The biggest indoor spaces in the neighborhood are found in Christian sanctuaries — but some residents prefer not to meet at a Christian site, Porterfield said.
Atchinson also wants to buy the church because of the murals her children painted in the basement.
“I think they’re irreplaceable,” she said. She is planning to register them as folk art, a move that might offer protection even if someone else buys the building.
Hogan, who ministered to two congregations at the church, personally convinced Atchinson to start Quest in 1995 and is still a staunch supporter of the controversial program. Despite some complaints about the general rowdiness of Atchinson’s group and, most recently, about condoms being distributed during lessons on AIDS, Hogan wants Quest to stay.
“That’s a street-kid mission, so that’s an ideal location,” he said. “And there aren’t many places for them.”
The church’s food pantry will also continue to operate out of the building, but the church’s third social-services agency — Hispanic Outreach Services — has moved across the street to the Boys and Girls Clubs.
Parishioners who attended the Spanish language Mass at the church will move to St. Anthony’s at 331 Seward Place. They will also switch pastors.
The Rev. John Medwid, who ministers at St. Anthony’s, will take over the services. That’s for the best, Hogan said.
“I think having a priest who really speaks fluently in Spanish is very good. I speak Spanish, but I don’t understand a word of it,” Hogan said, referring to his difficulty understanding spoken Spanish. “So I have a terrible time hearing confessions and counseling and stuff like that.”
But that won’t make it easy to say goodbye to the congregation he has worked to build since 1991.
“I’ll miss them terribly,” he said.
The parishioners who attended the English-language Mass will switch to St. Luke’s and St. Joseph’s, depending on their preferences. At issue is that most of the parishioners are poor and do not have cars.
St. Joseph’s is closer, but walking to St. Luke’s is easier, Hogan said.
“If you’re walking to St. Joseph’s, you have to walk back up that hill,” Hogan said, referring to State Street.
St. Joseph’s will stay open, despite persistent rumors to the contrary, Hogan added.
“At some point, when we begin to lose priests in this area, it will be looked at as a mission for St. Luke’s,” he said. “But right now we’re doing fine, and we will continue to have a worshipping congregation and the weekday Masses.”
Hogan will work at St. Joseph’s, but will also minister to parishioners on the Hill.
“The Hill will still be my concern,” he said.
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