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The Steeples Project Revitalizing Cambria City's Closed Churches

The loss of residents in Johnstown has had an impact on the city’s churches resulting in some having to close their doors. Finding a new use for these buildings has become the mission of the Steeple’s Project. Dave Hurst, project manager for the Steeples Project and Teresa Stoughton Marafino, president of 1901 Church, Inc. a nonprofit formed to save the churches joined us for conversation recorded in the Grand Halle of Johnstown’s Cambria City Cultural District. 

The Steeple’s Project was a result of three of the five Catholic churches in Cambria City closing. Former churchgoers, of the closed parishes, started a fundraising campaign to do something with the buildings. Charettes were held to discuss possible futures for the building.

“My original idea is we would take one of the former churches and turn it into a theater for the dramatic arts,” says Hurst, who would like to see a drama about Johnstown’s immigrant experience staged in the former Irish parish of St. Columba.

Hurst was put in touch with Stoughton Marafino who has a background in theater and has a passion for saving the church buildings.

“We really haven’t saved any churches yet,” Hurst explains. “That will happen when these buildings are placed in some kind of self-sustaining reuse where they can earn their own keep.”

When asked how the reuse of the buildings is helping the region Teresa Stoughton Marafino cites the number of wedding receptions taking place in the Grand Halle and the businesses, from caterers to florists, who benefit.

Looking to the future, and the important role reusing the former parishes can play in the development of the city's cultural district, Stoughton Marafino says, “We are very happy that we’ve got this building up and running. It has a revenue stream and it can go as a rental unit.”

Both Hurst and Stoughton Marafino know they have a decade's worth of work ahead of them before a theater is up and running in the former St. Columba. However, Stoughton Marafino says, based on the support they've gotten from the community, "I really do believe it will happen."

More Essential Pittsburgh segments can be heard here.