Monsignor talks about Youngstown, the oldest church in Ohio

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Msgr. Robert Siffrin

(Catholic Diocese of Youngstown)

[Editor’s note: This statement was submitted to Mahoning Matters on Tuesday, Feb. 1, 2022, the day Youngstown’s design review committee delayed a vote on the proposed demolition of the Welsh Congregational Church along Elm Street, as reported by The Vindicator. The committee is next scheduled to meet on March 1.]

Recently, after a long effort to save the Old Welsh Church on Elm Street, and years after the church fell into a dangerous state of disrepair and ceased to be used for religious worship, the Diocese of Youngstown has filed documents with the city to raze the building. Understandably, this news brought sadness to many, as the structure is believed to be the oldest existing church structure in the city of Youngstown. As vicar general of the diocese and defender of local history, I too share this sadness. I write now for two reasons: to help the public understand why the building needs to be razed, and to ensure that we don’t let this moment pass without recalling the spirit of community cooperation that long preceded this moment.

In many ways, the recent history of the old Welsh Church and its newest inhabitant, the Messiah Holiness Congregation, is a classic story of cooperation among community organizations in Youngstown over the past 30 years. Although historically a mainstay of the Welsh community of Youngstown, the last religious community to worship in the church was the Holiness of the Messiah congregation, until the church was badly damaged by fire in 1997. The tragic fire occurred shortly after a community effort restored the old church. Many local partners helped, including the church communities of St. Patrick Oak Hill, St. Columba and a group of labor contractors.

The sad reality is that the church has not been used for worship for over 25 years. The building continued to deteriorate over the ensuing years, becoming infested with rodents and in various ways posing a health risk to the surrounding community. Over the years the diocese has worked with the Congregation of the Holiness of the Messiah and by ourselves to clean the property as best we could, monitor and mitigate any infestation, and together with CityScape and other collaborators we have recovered windows and benches, which remain in storage. St. Columba also provided a space for the congregation to gather on Sunday afternoons for their worship until the health of their pastor, Reverend Redman, deteriorated in 2015.

Due to the unsafe condition of the church building, the City of Youngstown issued a “Tear Down or Repair” order in October 2015. The diocese worked with Reverend Redman to purchase the building in January 2016 with l intention to develop the property on Elm Street. between Wood St. and Rayen Ave.

Prior to razing the building, the diocese contacted interested parties to investigate options for relocating the church structure, developing a practical use for the building, and renovating the structure. CityScape agreed to be the supervising agent for the project, which was always a daunting task given the condition of the building. In August 2017, a possible relocation to Wick Park was underway when disputes arose.

Over the following years, several other sites were explored. Everyone who collaborated in the effort gave their time, talent and money. I really enjoyed working with them. Together we have encountered many disappointments along the way.

In July 2021, I indicated to the parties concerned that we had no more time to act and that an urgent decision had to be taken. The delay on the Diocesan project had exceeded the initial offer to delay implementation until 2018. The firm and fast deadline was November 19, 2021. A few weeks after the deadline, the city offered a property to CityScape which had been the last option considered. Diocesan staff who had been involved in the collaborative efforts asked many questions and raised concerns that were not easily resolved and concluded that the potential of the project had diminished significantly.

Although this structure is not a Catholic church, and even has not been a place of religious worship for some time, I have long advocated finding a way to preserve it for some useful purpose, which is why I initiated the dialogue with our partners. In my opinion, given the current state of the building and the uncertain efforts to move and renovate it, this project has become even more uncertain than when it started. Together with our partners, we have dreamed of the possibility of saving this historic structure, but the last thing we want to do is move it to a new location where it will continue to languish in its current state (or worse) for years to come. to come. .

Along with other members of the community, I regret that concrete measures could not be developed to save this structure. And yet, I hope this collaborative community effort will continue to be a catalyst to keep dreaming of how we can continue to work together across community organizations to better our community, honor our history in a dignified way, and take concrete and practical measures. to build on this history as we move into the future.

Monsignor Robert Siffrin is Vicar General and Moderator of the Curia of the Catholic Diocese of Youngstown.

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