JOHNSTOWN, Pennsylvania – The light has been brought back to St. Columba’s Church in Johnstown as a performing arts venue.
About 100 people attended the “Waking Columba” show on Saturday night at 306 Broad St., which is in the midst of a multimillion-dollar renovation to become a full-fledged performing arts attraction in Johnstown.
The event marked the first time the building’s seats have been filled since 2009, when it was last opened as a church.
The developing theater preserves architecture and artwork from its history as an Irish-Catholic parish built in the Cambria City section of Johnstown in the early 1900s.
Saturday’s lineup began at 7 p.m. with the Band of Brothers theater company, followed by performances of music, poetry, dance, comedy, and theater saluting the venue’s history.
The evening began with a symbolic procession involving all participants who purchased tickets. Holding LED candles, attendees were ushered to their seats by piper Neil Brett, a member of the Johnstown Chapter of the Ancient Order of Hibernians.
The Hibernians, an Irish Catholic charity group, are helping to transform the old church into a fully functioning arts space.
“As we were preparing for the show last week, a woman who was baptized here, had her first communion here and got married here said, ‘I feel like home'” , Brett said.
St. Columba is no longer a church, but performances there on Saturday may still have offered people a spiritual experience of sorts through the vibrant sound of an a cappella Irish dance, the light rhythm of a violin and the laughter of a set of well-written jokes.
And from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday at the theater, the Ancient Order of Hibernians co-hosted an Irish Brunch prepared by Green Gables Restaurant. More than 120 people turned out for eggs, sausages, mushrooms, beans and potatoes, as well as Irish coffee, mimosas and stouts.
All proceeds from the brunch were donated to the ongoing renovation of the building.
The theater is owned by 1901 Church Inc., a non-profit organization that is undertaking an $8 million renovation to further develop the venue. The group’s executive director, Dave Hurst, said the theatrical space is still tough and needs a lot of work.
“It’s a very unique business,” he said. “It is the only theater dedicated to the dramatic arts capable of operating all year round. I am grateful that we have come to this. Going forward, what we will do is cover running costs and provide the venue free of charge to theater companies for workshops and rehearsals.
Mady Oliver, 20, who was home Saturday for spring break from the University of Pittsburgh, said she was impressed with the venue. Oliver is pursuing a minor degree in theater arts. She said the venue is the type she looks for entertainment.
“I go to see the Johnstown Symphony Orchestra or plays at a local high school, but I’ve always had a hard time finding things like that when I get home from school,” she said.
During the intermission, light refreshments and alcohol were served. Andy Stephenson, 37, of Johnstown, looked around the room.
“There is a lot of potential with the arts here and the involvement of different generations in the region,” he said. “I think the momentum can build on that.”
Melanie Archangelo from Mundy’s Corner attended Sunday brunch and Saturday entertainment.
“It’s phenomenal,” she said. “I want to support what they’re doing here – make it a theater. Johnstown needs it.