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The "Irish Church," Saint Columba’s, in Johnstown, Pa., is being re-opened — as a theater

… a great St. Patrick’s Day project

I first heard of St. Columba’s Church in Johnstown when I was in high school. The Lilly Grade School Basketball Tournament was started in 1964, and one of the first 11 teams was St. Columba’s.

I will never forget the coach of that team, Jim Suttmiller, who was a quality man who really cared about the kids. He later coached the jointure team that was called West End Catholic.

However, I had never really seen the church and recognized it until 1968. During that summer, I, as a college student, worked for Bethlehem Steel in a location called the “10 Yard.” That was located right across the street from St. Columba’s, and it was when I started to appreciate the historical quality of Johnstown’s West End. The ten yard now is home to a Sheetz, which is, unfortunately a sad commentary on the steel industry in Johnstown.

For St. Columba's, the 21st Century came, and churches started to close for a variety of reasons. Those beautiful five Catholic Churches in the West End turned into one parish -- and empty buildings.

That Irish parish was closed more than 12 years ago, but now, suddenly, it has been revived, not as a Catholic parish, but as a theater.

What a great effort by a group of people interested in cultural preservation and theater.

Here is that story.

The Steeples Project

What is this project? A news story explains, and the website of The Steeples Project goes into more detail,

An old church building with decades of history will see new life thanks to the Steeples Project, a campaign to turn former churches into exciting new venues within a growing cultural district in Johnstown.

Following more than a dozen years of vacancy, the former St. Columba church building on Broad Street in Cambria City has been around since the early 1900s.

“The vision for this building is to turn this into a theater for dramatic arts, we do not have a theater or a venue that is specifically dedicated to live theater,” Project Manager for the Steeples Project Dave Hurst said.

Hurst says that’s what Steeples Project is all about, breathing new life into old church buildings.

“So the goal is to encourage the community to stop thinking about this as an old vacant church building and to start to think about it as a theater,” Hurst said.

Matt Alvarez, “Cambria City church building to turn

into theater,” WTAJ-TV, March 5, 2022

That is wonderful news, just in time for St. Paddy’s Day, 2022.

History of St. Columba’s

The website of the organization provides some interesting background of this historical Catholic venue,

Saint Columba was always Cambria City's English-speaking parish. Founded by Irish immigrants in 1882, parish families originally built a combination church and school that survived the 1889 Johnstown Flood and still stands today at Chestnut Street and Tenth Avenue. Our Columba was built between 1913 and 1915.

The building was designed by architect John T. Comès of Pittsburgh, a prolific liturgical architect of the early 20th century, who created designs for more than 40 churches, including cathedrals in Wheeling, WV; Toledo, OH; and Salt Lake City, UT. Sculptor Charles Simon created the statuary and a variety of Celtic elements as decorative touches. And Comès brought in a frequent collaborator, liturgical artist Felix Lieftuchter, who painted a large oil-on-canvas mural on the apse wall titled "Christ and the Angels."

The lower-left corner of the mural features a silhouette of a steel mill, an industrialist and struggling immigrant workers. Columba's stained glass features saints of the Church – including several Celtic figures – and was produced using a French technique known as "grisaille" (grayness), where shades of black and gray create depth in the images.

The Steeples Project, 2022

How did the group decide to use St. Columba’s?

In 2017, The Steeples Project commissioned a $40,000 feasibility study of the theater concept, using a 10-person consulting team that included three architects, a structural engineer, three theater-design professionals, two theater-marketing specialists and an economic development specialist. They concluded that the concept is feasible and capable of generating annual economic impact of $2.7 million in support of 52 jobs!

The proposed 300-seat theater would be the venue for a professionally produced, locally inspired historical drama; a home-stage for local theater companies, enabling them to stage other productions year-round; and a center for other performing arts. The feasibility study estimated a total project cost of $3 million and has provided the basis for business and fund-raising plans.

The Steeples Project, 2022

This is an awesome project on so many levels. More on this to come, hopefully.

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