SKANEATELES | After conducting weekly services outside in Thayer Park during the summer and inside the parish hall most recently, St. James’ Episcopal congregants will soon gather in the church sanctuary for worship for the first time since an extensive renovation project began earlier this year.
The Rev. Becky Coerper, St. James’ pastor, said the replacement of the 140-year-old roof is complete, and the church signed off a punch list for that phase along with its completion and occupancy.
Another phase involving renovations to the nave and chapel downstairs is expected to be completed by the end of the month, and renovations to the sanctuary and narthex will be finished in time for the church to hold its three services in the sanctuary Sunday, Nov. 22.
When worship returns to the main part of the building, Coerper said congregants will mark the occasion with “a great big celebration,” although she said people have unexpectedly enjoyed going to church inside the parish hall.
“People have loved it,” she said. “It’s been one of those happy things. You get to see the lake. There’s kind of an intimacy to the space that people have enjoyed. It’s been a really happy coincidence to discover that.”
Though one service takes place in Thayer Park during the summer, she said there are two services that never go outside and moved to the parish hall instead – “We should do this every summer,” Coerper said congregants remarked. “That was kind of a fun thing to find out.”
Still, she said, people look forward to worshiping in the sanctuary again and to see the changes that have taken place as a result of the construction.
“Universally, people are excited,” she said. “They’re either excited just to be back in the church, or they’re excited about that and about the renovations. I think any time you do a major change, especially a major change to worship space, there are people that just struggle with that and that is certainly true here.”
Coerper said people may feel unsure whether the revamped sanctuary will seem too different, but “a tremendous amount of excitement and high energy and anticipation” is the overwhelming thought.
She noted the church required access through the nave for its congregants who couldn’t navigate the stairs into the parish hall, so some people had the opportunity to view the renovations as they were taking place.
“That has helped a lot. It’s not going to be suddenly brand new,” she said. “We've been able to see the progress, and I think people have been very pleasantly surprised as they’ve seen things finished, like the new tile floor and the paint colors and the chancel area.”
Coerper praised the work of the Hayner Hoyt Construction Co. and its subcontractors on a “phenomenal job” that “far exceeded our expectations,” and she also credited the work of Rochester-based Bero Architecture and principal Jennifer Ahrens.
“I think they have done an extraordinary job interpreting our desires and our needs and putting them into a reality that is very much in line with the historic flavor of the building and the age of the building,” Coerper said.
Of the current work, she said the sidewalk leading into the church was opened up and the front doors were rebuilt to accommodate a larger opening into the building. The narthex, or foyer, was extended with better defined storage space, glass doors and windows that open into the sanctuary.
A few pews were removed from the front and back of the sanctuary to open up the space for greeting people and moving people during worship. The altar was pulled out into the worship space to be in midst of the congregation and so people do not have to climb steps during communion.
The revamped chancel and altar also allow for better visibility of the church’s Christmas pageant and Easter vigil that contain dramatic productions, and the space could also fit a community function such as a chamber orchestra or a lecture.
“The front of the church now has this incredibly open and expansive feel to it, which to me is theological,” Coerper said. “It is a physical representation of the open and expansive welcome of God, so that’s amazingly fun to think about how we’re going to use that space.”
She noted there is still one phase left to the overall project. It would add an elevator and street level exterior entrance to the building, as there is currently no way to go from upstairs to downstairs without using stairs, and most of the church’s education and meeting space is downstairs.
She said there is no street level entrance except through the sanctuary, so having a new entrance would add both accessibility and security for people to reach the offices without entering from the other end of the building.
Coerper said church officials will meet with the architect when the current work is finished to see where the church is in terms of money and what it can accomplish. Then, officials will go through the design process and select a contractor.
“In a volunteer organization like this, that is extremely time consuming,” Coerper said. “It has taken us much longer every single time that we’ve done this process for a project than we thought.”
Coerper noted the goals of the overall project included better handicapped accessibility and more flexibility of space.
For example, of the three worship services, one features an organ and choir, one features a band and one features no music, and the space will allow all of the musicians to be permanently set up rather than rushing around to accommodate each other in between services.
“Now, I think it’s going to enable us to have a much more reverent feel to Sunday morning,” she said.
Coerper also said St. James’ entered “a year of discernment” around the church’s mission and place in serving the community. She noted 10 percent of the fundraised amount will go toward mission purposes to support initiatives in the community.
“It seems like the question gets raised a lot about now that this space is going to be so much more usable, what are we going to use it for and how can we use it to better serve whatever needs in the community get identified over the next year?” she said.
Next year, the St. James’ organization celebrates its 200th anniversary and will mark the milestone by hosting one special event each month for the entire year. Coerper noted the anniversary also comes with a freshly renovated building.
“The timing is just incredibly good for us to be celebrating all those things at the same time,” she said. “This obviously now will be space that we’ll be able to enjoy.”