AUGUSTA — The new owner of the former St. Mark’s Episcopal Church property envisions the spectacular, though recently neglected, granite-and-marble church as a community gathering space where people from all walks of life can talk, listen to music, get married or take part in other events.

Adam F. Turner, who grew up in Chelsea, most recently lived in Hallowell and now is living on the former St. Mark’s property in Augusta as he works to convert it to new uses. The church itself is still largely intact and filled with elaborate stained glass windows and a pipe organ.

In a recent interview, Turner said he plans to convert the church’s former parish hall into apartments, its historic rectory into residential housing or possibly a bed-and-breakfast, and the stone church into a community space that could host fundraisers, concerts, plays, meetings and other gatherings he said “that are positive events that are uplifting to the community.”

He has experience turning “distressed” properties into residential rental properties and was drawn to the property, he said, by his interest in preserving historic buildings, in particular church buildings, which he said are increasingly at risk of being lost to history as the congregations that built them no longer can afford to keep them.

“Architecturally, these buildings represent the pinnacle of what human beings are capable of when we work together to build something,” the 43-year-old Turner said, speaking inside the former church, which held its last service at the end of 2014.

“We’re coming to the point in human history where magnificent church buildings are falling into disrepair and are in danger of being pieced out or torn down, or churches are abandoning them. These buildings are our heritage, and we will probably never again see the intersection of craftsmanship, wealth and devotion that was needed to build them. They were working for a higher purpose.”

The catch is, Turner’s plans for a community gathering space at the church aren’t allowed under city zone rules in the residential zone, where the church property is located. And those plans also could be hampered by a lack of off-street parking, other than a small driveway serving the rectory off Summer Street.

Matt Nazar, the city development director, said using the church as a community gathering space to host public events probably would require an amendment to the city’s land use ordinance, a change that would need authorization from the City Council.

Turner, who bought the church about a month ago, said he’s aware the reuse would require a zoning change but said he’s hopeful the city, and neighbors, will see the value in the church being used in such a way, as a way to preserve the structure by finding a new use for it.

He said he’s not a religious person but appreciates the history of the building and the good work done by its former parishioners.

He said he doesn’t expect to make money hosting events in the church, if he’s allowed to do so, but does hope gatherings there could generate at least some money to help pay for the cost of maintaining and owning the Summer Street Gothic revival church, which was built in 1884 and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1984.

Turner makes his living by buying distressed properties, fixing them up mostly by himself, and renting them out as apartments, including a former school building in Gardiner containing six rental units, and an 1820 three-unit apartment building on Central Street in Hallowell.

He anticipates putting around three apartments, to be rented at market rates, in the former St. Mark’s parish hall, which was previously home to the Augusta Food Bank, Addie’s Attic clothing bank, Everyday Basics toiletries pantry, and, in the cold months, the Augusta Community Warming Center.

And he might seek to start a bed-and-breakfast in the 1820 Weston-Fuller home, the church rectory at 11 Summer St., the boyhood home of Melville Fuller, the eighth chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Nazar said converting the parish hall into apartments, which is an allowed use in the zone, probably will require a subdivision and site plan review; and turning the rectory into a bed-and-breakfast, which is a conditional use in that zoning district, also would require review by the Augusta Planning Board.

Turner said he took a loan out to buy the combined properties and plans to do most of the renovation work needed himself.

He said that’s one reason he feels he can afford to renovate and maintain the buildings, including the church building, which church officials decided to sell because their congregation membership was dwindling and didn’t want to spend money. Church leaders said it would be spent better on helping others in the community rather than on maintaining the facilities. He said he should be able to do work on the property himself more cheaply than the church could hire people to do.

Connie MacDonald, former senior warden for St. Mark’s, said the congregation’s numbers shrank so much it didn’t make sense for them to keep such a large church building. She’s hopeful selling it will result in it being put to a new use, and preserved.

The sale, she said, “is a good thing from the standpoint that somebody else can do something with the beautiful church building. It’s absolutely beautiful, with marble and granite and wonderful stained glass windows. An icon, that’s for sure. And it has wonderful acoustics, for concerts and that kind of thing. For a number of years we had an organ concert there.”

St. Mark’s parishioners have since joined with the former Prince of Peace Lutheran Church parishioners to form Emmanuel Lutheran Episcopal Church at 209 Eastern Ave.

In 2016 St. Mark’s leaders sold the bells, which once rang in the church’s tall bell tower, and also sold a Tiffany stained glass window featuring the ascension of Jesus Christ into heaven. But most of the church building remains intact, the pews still in place.

MacDonald said the proceeds from the sale of the St. Mark’s property would go to the Episcopal Diocese of Maine.

Both MacDonald and Turner declined to reveal the purchase price.

MacDonald said she’s not sure whether Turner has the resources to save and re-purpose the property, but she said he seems persistent, and she hopes he is successful.

What would become of the church property has been a closely followed saga since the congregation stopped holding services there. In July 2016 rumors that the property could be purchased by Bread of Life Ministries, which operates a homeless shelter on Hospital Street and a soup kitchen on Water Street, prompted city officials to issue a moratorium on any new group, boarding or rooming homes, to allow time to alter city ordinances to clarify what is allowed within that zone. Church leaders said the city’s action hampered their ability to sell the property.

City officials also said the social services previously provided in the parish hall, which have since moved to the Emmanuel church property on Eastern Avenue, wouldn’t be allowed to remain at the former St. Mark’s site, as those uses weren’t allowed in that zone if they weren’t being provided as part of church activities.

The former St. Mark’s Church already has hosted one somewhat impromptu event since Turner bought it, a funeral ceremony for a former parishioner.

Nazar said the city staff had a brief conversation with Turner, after some attendees of the funeral service parked in the parking lot for Lithgow Public Library, which is diagonally across Pleasant Street from the church. He said Turner said the event got more attendees than expected and he apologized to the library staff that some had used the library parking lot. Nazar said the city took no action and the funeral was a one-time event.

“We contacted him and we had a conversation. He seems like a very nice gentleman who is easy to deal with and is interested in making sure he follows whatever rules he needs to follow,” Nazar said of Turner. “He expressed interest in being a good neighbor. We look forward to working with him.”

Nazar noted that parking will be a concern if and when Turner proposes to convert the former church building into a community gathering space.

Turner said he initially planned to make his residence in the church building, but once he spent time there, he decided it would be better used as a space for the community to gather for positive, uplifting events.

“I hope the building will become a place where we can enjoy music and the communication of ideas, and a stronghold for anyone who feels marginalized by some of the ignorance that is happening in today’s political climate,” he said. “All people, the LGBQT community, the immigrant and refugee communities, homeless and underhoused people, Christians, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, agnostics, atheists, pagans, conservatives, progressives, clowns, whoever wants to come together in community and support each other as people while supporting the arts and the preservation of the building will be welcome here.”

 

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