By LINDA M. LINONIS
Three “urban pioneers” saw potential in a hope and turned it into a reality.
Working behind the scenes and with no fanfare, Sandra Cika, Mary Ann Mlynarski and Richard Scarsella formed Brier Hill Cultural Center Inc., a new nonprofit corporation that bought the former St. Casimir Church property. It holds the deed to the property at 145 Jefferson Ave., and is free and clear of debt.
The terms of the sale with the Diocese of Youngstown, “one dollar and other considerations,” came with a confidentiality clause. “We made a viable offer,” Scarsella said. The money was raised without fundraisers or church money.
“We wanted to be financially sound,” Scarsella said of corporation, which has applied for 501 (c) 3 status, which means a tax-exempt nonprofit organization.
A sound business plan was developed. Currently, the rectory and convent are rented, providing a source of money.
At the time of the final Mass on Feb. 25, 2012, at St. Casimir, it was noted a group was exploring the possibility of another use for the church. That has proven to be prophetic.
Cika, executive director and president; Mlynarski, vice president; and Scarsella, secretary, offered insight into the project.
In the diocese’s Parish Implementation Plan, St. Casimir merged with St. Columba Cathedral. Scarsella, the man behind Sacred Places Dialogue, reached out to the Rev. John Keehner, then St. Casimir pastor, who asked him to speak at the church. The Sacred Places concept is based on a grass-roots movement on how to preserve or re-invent sacred sites.
Cika, Mlynarski and Scarsella remember “virtually every hand going up” in the congregation when asked if they were interested in repurposing the church. As Scarsella calls it, “the walking together process” is one of detached discernment about assessing buildings, location, potential and finances. “We did things slowly and strategically,” he said, adding “it was all done confidentially.”
Through that process, the number involved also was reduced until Cika and Mlynarski emerged as leaders from the church.
Plans for the neo-Romanesque building are still being formulated. A designer will transform the space but there will be no major changes. The former parish office will become the non-profit’s office; the chapel, a gallery with permanent and rotating exhibits to be determined; and the former sanctuary, now the grand hall will be used for events such as concerts, recitals and dinners. The sacramentals were removed but stained glass windows, soaring ceiling and beautiful woodwork remain and set the stage for a versatile multipurpose area. A hall on the lower level will be used for smaller events, providing two tiers of rental space.
The three noted events “will be in good taste” and “respectful of the former church.” The center will have a “soft” opening before a grand opening date to be determined. Scarsella said they have a “diverse tool kit of talents” including the marketing skills of Cika, who has a graphic arts business.
Cika said Brier Hill Cultural Center Inc.’s vision and mission includes remembering St. Casimir Church and its role in the community and celebrating the ethnic diversity of Brier Hill while serving as an anchor there. Its location near U.S. Route 422, between Youngstown and Girard, places it in a area of revitalization. The center will be rented out to raise funds and memberships will be sold.
Scarsella, who has a deep interest in Valley history, said churches have played a dominant role in communities and are part of the collective memory of residents.
For Cika and Mlynarski, the repurposed church affirms the tenacity and faith of Polish immigrants who founded the church. Those qualities also kept the two on a determined course. Their grandparents were among church founders.
Cika, who has a copy of a photograph of the church dedication in 1926, said she “was haunted by the faces staring at me ... those people who poured out on Jefferson Street for the occasion.” She said she felt the church closing let them down and was like a “death in the family.”
“The church was built for the generations,” Cika said, adding the repurposing gives the building new life.
“This is part of me,” said Mlynarski, adding her connection to the former church began at birth and her baptism. “The building is a sound, useable space and this is a phenomenal idea.”