Back when the St. Lawrence Arts Center in Portland was just a glimmer in the eyes of live music and theater fans, the organization’s first benefit event featured singer-songwriter Slaid Cleaves. On April 22, the Maine native who now resides in Austin, Texas, returned to Portland to perform once again for an intimate gathering of the arts center’s top supporters.

The party took place in Cyrus and Patty Hagge’s airy, contemporary Munjoy Hill home, which offers soaring views of the Eastern Prom and Casco Bay beyond.

“I was relieved when I came up here and saw this beautiful place,” Cleaves told the crowd. “Because I knew I wouldn’t have to deliver much.”

This had to be the understatement of the night. During his acoustic performance, Cleaves wowed the crowd with 10 songs, including “Cry” from his latest album, “Everything You Love Will Be Taken Away.”

Before introducing him to the 63 guests clustered in the Hagges’ spacious great room, St. Lawrence Executive Director Deirdre Nice told us about that 1995 kickoff benefit.

“Slaid did the first fundraiser for the St. Lawrence in the backyard of Silly’s,” said Nice, who used to own Silly’s. “We made $300.”

After the event at Silly’s, Nice said they took a keg of Geary’s up to the St. Lawrence, where Cleaves performed for a small group.

“It was the only concert ever in the sanctuary,” Nice said.

The stone church built in 1897 in the Romanesque Queen Anne style entered private hands in the 1980s and was purchased by Nice and a partner in 1993.

When she spoke to the group and thanked everyone for being such strong supporters of the arts center, Development Director Julia Kirby gave a brief history of the organization. She told us that in 1997 the Friends of the St. Lawrence formed and purchased the building from Nice. By 2001, the group had opened the parish hall theater for performances.

More recently, the church’s deteriorating sanctuary suffered a partial collapse in 2007 and had to be torn down the following year for safety reasons. No public performances were ever held in the sanctuary during its arts center tenure, making the Cleaves performance a one-of-a-kind event.

His most recent benefit was much more lucrative than the first performance he donated to the organization, bringing in $5,000 toward the ongoing fundraising campaign to raise $15 million to replace the lost sanctuary.

In addition to the donation of Cleaves’ time and talent, the party benefited from the donation by Allagash Brewing Company of its Victor ale, which is brewed in honor of the arts center — and $1 from each bottle sold goes to the St. Lawrence.

Before and after the performance, I chatted with a number of supporters about the role of the St. Lawrence in the community.

“It’s had a surprising success as a venue,” board member Rob Reusch told me.

His wife, Julie Finn, added, “I think it fills a real niche.”

Many people spoke about the arts center’s diversity of offerings, which range from comedy and concerts to musicals and burlesque.

“I go to the Good Theater productions at the St. Lawrence,” Judy Micoleau of Portland told me. “The theater is very professional with equity actors.”

St. Lawrence Board President Joe Delaney told me about the plans that call for a 400-plus seat theater in the spot where the sanctuary used to be.

Delaney said the revenue from a venue of that size would allow the organization to be self-sustaining, in a manner that is impossible with the 100-seat parish hall theater.

“To have that building come down was traumatic,” Delaney told me. “But there were years there when it was raining and I would lie awake at night knowing it was leaking in there.”

Now, instead of thinking about leaking roofs, he’s thinking about raising money for the new building.

“We’re finding a lot of support,” Delaney said. “The city has shown itself to be behind it.”

Board member Nan Cumming, who heads Portland Trails and lives a couple of blocks away from the St. Lawrence with her husband, Drew Masterman, said she appreciates how much vitality the arts center has injected into the community.

“I think it’s been a huge part of the renaissance of Munjoy Hill,” Cumming told me.

“Audience members come to enjoy music and theater. Afterwards they enjoy the restaurants. When there’s a show, the pedestrian life really explodes,” she said.

Still, Cumming fondly remembers the church’s sanctuary.

“I do miss the old building,” Cumming said. “Some of the old stonework was saved. We’ll see if it can be re-incorporated” into the new building.

For anyone not lucky enough to score an invite to this intimate soiree, Cleaves told me he’ll be back in Maine this summer performing in support of his forthcoming album, “Sorrow and Smoke Live at the Horseshoe Lounge.”

No word yet on whether or not he’ll make an appearance at the St. Lawrence.

Staff Writer Avery Yale Kamila can be contacted at 791-6297 or at:

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