Razing of historic church follows its role in uniting community
Recently, after a long effort to save the Old Welsh Church on Elm Street, and years after the church fell into dangerous disrepair and ceased being used for religious worship, the Diocese of Youngstown filed paperwork with the city in preparation for razing the building. Naturally, this news has evoked sadness among many, since the structure is understood to be the oldest existing church structure in Youngstown. As vicar general for the diocese and an advocate for local history, I too share that sadness. I write now for two reasons: to help the public understand why it is necessary to raze the building, and to ensure we do not let this moment pass without recalling the spirit of community cooperation that long predated this moment.
In many ways, the recent history of the Old Welsh Church and its most recent inhabitant, the Messiah Holiness Congregation, is a classic story of cooperation among Youngstown community organizations for 30 years. Although historically a pillar of the local Welsh community, the last faith community to worship in the church was the Messiah Holiness Congregation, until the church was severely damaged by a fire in 1997. The tragic fire occurred shortly after a community effort had restored the old church. Many local partners had helped, including the church communities of St. Patrick Oak Hill, St. Columba and a group of union contractors. The sad fact is the church has not been used for worship in over 25 years. The building continued to deteriorate, becoming infested with rodents and posing a health risk. Over the years, the Diocese worked with the Messiah Holiness Congregation and on our own to clean the property as best we could, monitor and mitigate any infestation. With CityScape and other collaborators, we salvaged windows and pews, which remain in storage. St. Columba also provided space for the congregation to gather on Sunday afternoons for worship until the health of their pastor, Rev. Redman, deteriorated in 2015.
Due to the church building’s hazardous conditions, Youngstown issued a “raze or repair” order in October 2015. The diocese worked with the Rev. Redman to purchase the building in January 2016 intending to develop the property on Elm Street between Wood Street and Rayen Avenue.
Before razing the building, the Diocese contacted interested parties to investigate options to move the church structure, develop a practical use of the building and renovate the structure. Cityscape agreed to be the project’s overseeing agent, a daunting task given the building’s condition. In August 2017 a potential relocation to Wick Park was underway when conflicts arose.
In ensuing years several other sites were investigated. All who collaborated contributed their time, talent and money. I genuinely enjoyed working with them. Together, we encountered numerous disappointments.
In July 2021, I indicated to the parties involved that we were long past the time to take action, and an urgent decision was needed. The delay on the diocesan project exceeded the original offer to delay implementation through 2018. The firm deadline was Nov. 19, 2021. A few weeks after the deadline, the city offered property to Cityscape that had been the last option being considered. Diocesan staff who had been involved in the collaborative efforts asked numerous questions and raised concerns not easily resolved, concluding that the project’s potential had significantly diminished.
Although this structure is not a Catholic church, and indeed hasn’t been a place of religious worship for some time, I have long been an advocate for preserving it for a useful purpose, which is why I initiated the dialogue with our partners. In my opinion, given the current condition of the building and uncertain efforts to move and refurbish it, this project has become even more uncertain than when we started. With our partners, we have dreamed together about the possibility of saving this historic structure, but the last thing we want to do is move it to a new location where it will continue to languish in its current state (or worse) for years to come.
With others in the community, I regret that concrete steps have not been able to be developed to save this structure. And yet, I hope this effort of community collaboration will continue to be a catalyst for continued dreaming about how we can continue to work together between community organizations to better our community, honor our history in a dignified way and take concrete and practical steps to build upon that history as we move into the future.
Monsignor Robert Siffrin is vicar general of the Youngstown Catholic Diocese.