Nancy Salmon is president of the Arts & Cultural Alliance board, which plans this year to expand the sanctuary stage at the First Parish Church of Freeport. The church will continue to function alongside Meetinghouse Arts, a performance venue and art gallery. Alex Lear / The Forecaster

FREEPORT — A member of the First Parish Church since she was 13, Patty Kennedy can remember upwards of 200 people in attendance – a number that has shrunk over the years by about 90%.

But with a series of renovations planned for the 40 Main St. structure, intended to transform it partly into a performance hall and art gallery, the church board president hopes First Parish will enjoy an exciting next chapter in its 125-year existence.

With approval from the Project Review Board on July 15, the Arts & Cultural Alliance of Freeport is close to signing a lease with the church, and the work could be completed this fall. The project includes the expansion of the church sanctuary’s stage from about 300 square feet to a little more than 600, allowing 70 singers there at one time to perform for 200 people.

The work also includes a new, longer exterior ramp – 46 linear feet, up from 41 – with a decreased slope that will allow for easier wheelchair access and also meet the town code. That ramp will run up to a new, third door, which will lead into an art gallery.

“We are very excited about this; it is a great opportunity for the community as well, and for us,” Kennedy said. Given the church’s dwindling congregation, “this seemed like a great solution; we’re really pleased that it’s coming along.”

The approximately $480,000 renovation budget includes an $80,000 contingency, according to Nancy Salmon, president of the Arts & Cultural Alliance board. The alliance had raised roughly $380,000 of that before halting due to the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic in March. Fundraising has resumed, and Salmon hopes for work to start in August and be complete by October.

The new venue – dubbed Meetinghouse Arts, a nod to the church that was once the town’s meetinghouse – will operate concurrently with the church, Salmon said. First Parish will continue to hold services on stage each Sunday, and avail itself for weddings, funerals and its annual membership meeting. The church will maintain downstairs usage for meetings, and other services and activities, and the alliance and church “will cooperate on other needs as they arise,” Salmon said.

With lights and curtains, the expanded stage will feature events like musical and theatrical shows and lectures, “so it becomes a venue for smaller, more intimate performances” than those held at the Freeport Performing Arts Center at Freeport High School, Salmon said.

She foresees Meetinghouse Arts being a learning space for students. “We can be the entree for students who are very much involved with the arts of all sorts (at the high school) – a safer step into the community,” Salmon said.

“It’s a service to the community, and the church benefits, we hope,” she said. “And vice versa.”

More information on alliance events being held around the community can be found at freeportartsandculture.org.

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