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Church Prepared A Place For Itself

March 4, 2007
Commentary By TOM CONDON, Courant Staff Writer

In the late 1980s, St. Monica's Episcopal Church saw a problem coming. Though many of Hartford's most prominent West Indian and African Americans still made their way to the small, stately brick church on Mather Street each Sunday, the parish was graying and not growing.

The young West Indian farmworkers who'd joined the church in the 1940s and 1050s, when Father Alfred Lambert would ride his bicycle up to the Windsor tobacco fields to visit them, were getting on in years. Their part of the North End was attracting more Latinos, who were inclined toward Catholic or Pentecostal churches. Also, truth be told, the neighborhood was getting a bit dicey. The church would have to put a hard plastic material over the stained glass windows to protect them.

The church's vestry - management committee - came to the reluctant conclusion that if the church was to grow, it would have to move. As with a number of other city churches, more than half of its parishioners - 60 percent - lived in the suburbs. Several major churches and synagogues in similar circumstances left the city over the years. St. Monica's wanted a place more easily accessible and less intimidating, but also wanted to stay in Hartford.

Collin B. Bennett, a real estate agent, businessman, minister and the first West Indian to serve on the Hartford city council, offered an idea. There was a 171/2-acre pocket of land available on Main Street across from the old Fuller Brush factory, almost to the Windsor line. But what to do with it?

A committee studied a number of options, and developed a bold plan that would meet the church's goal of community service and produce a new church building. They planned to create a "town within a town." Dr. Edythe Gaines, the former Hartford superintendent of schools and public utilities commissioner, led the fundraising effort. She had the contacts.

The plan, called the Second Century Plan, had three parts. The first called for an apartment complex for seniors. The next part would be 55 homes for low- and moderate-income residents. Finally would come a new church and community center.

If faith can move mountains, it can spin off nonprofit development corporations and apply for city and state construction funding. It can raise private funds as well.

The 60-unit, beige brick St. Monica's Elderly Housing complex opened in the mid-1990s.

The light color seems to reduce the bulk of the building, which fits nicely into the commercial/industrial corridor of North Main Street. I walked through it with George Scott, outgoing senior warden of the church and the proprietor of the well-regarded Scott's Jamaican Bakery stores. The senior housing complex is bright and clean and has a waiting list of 60, one for every apartment.

In 2005 the last of the 55 homes was finished. The homes are small, neat, well-kept garrison colonials. The development looks much like a suburban-style subdivision, with winding streets with such appropriate names as Lambert, Bennett and Gaines.

"It's like a gated community without the gate," Mr. Scott observed. It does have a semi-hidden, out-of-the-way feel. There were more applicants than houses, so the buyers were selected by lottery.

To keep the homes affordable, buyers purchase a limited equity that can only appreciate a certain amount. All the homes are sold and occupied, and there's a waiting list of buyers, said Bob Lightfoot, who heads the development corporation.

Now for the final step. The church's directors are in the process of selling the Mather Street church building and starting construction on the new church, which will be across St. Monica's Drive from the senior housing complex on Main Street, on a lot that was once a park for workers at Fuller Brush.

Mr. Scott said the church would be built in two stages, the first a rectangular building that will be used for services and community events, and then, when the money is in place, a more traditional sanctuary.

The hope is that the new location, which is just off I-91, will boost church membership. Certainly the presence of St. Monica's will boost the prospects of the Terry Square neighborhood, which is slowly coming back. You don't quite get a town-within-a-town until there are places to work. The old brush factory has some small businesses, as well as the "one-stop" job center, and the area is developing as a club district. A gateway and facade program is underway. The addition of worker housing, in short supply in the area, can only help.

It's all quite an accomplishment for a church with only 300 members (and about 170 regular attendees). It was named for Monica, the African-born mother of St. Augustine, and begun in 1904 because the mainstream churches weren't as welcoming to African Americans as they should have been. The church occupied several sites before settling into the Mather Street church, a former Baptist church, in the 1920s.

Mr. Lightfoot said it was hard to maintain the enthusiasm for the project over two decades, but they did, even with the loss of leaders such as Mr. Bennett and Dr. Gaines. That is quite remarkable.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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