Glenn Rutherford, Record Assistant Editor

Building that houses local homeless center for men is in need of painting, re-plastering

St. John parish was established in 1855, and three years later the church was built on what is now 700 E. Muhammad Ali Blvd. The parish was never a huge one, though there were times it was large enough to support its own school. When people began fleeing the city for the suburbs, St. John parish began to wither away.

It closed in 1985, and a year later, thanks to the efforts of Sister of Charity of Nazareth Kathleen Sheehan, the church became home to a day shelter for homeless men. In the years since, the St. John Center has become one of the pillars of the city’s services to the homeless. It is open seven days a week, 365 days a year, and on any given day nearly 200 men take advantage of its services and the daytime shelter it provides.

Like other social-service organizations, from time to time St. John Center has struggled to keep its doors open. As a result, fund-raising efforts have always concentrated on the center’s mission — providing help, counseling and care to the thousands of homeless men it serves. Dollars collected have been used to pay for the center’s mission. The aesthetics of the situation — the paint and plaster, appeal and appearance of the place — have been left to fate and time.

Until now.

The center is about to launch an effort to repair and restore — re-paint and re-plaster — the old church’s ceiling, and Lord knows the last time that was done.

“No one around here now has any idea,” said Ron Sweat, St. John’s director of mission advancement. “If I had to guess I’d say the last time it was painted was back during World War II, but it could be a lot longer than that.”

Whatever was done in the past, the present has caught up with the church’s ceiling.

Plaster has fallen a number of times in the recent past. One hefty piece almost hit Sister Sheehan, who

retired a couple of years ago as St. John’s executive director. A second chunk of plaster narrowly missed Sister Sheehan’s successor, Maria Price.

“It’s really time to pay the piper,” Sweat said. “We’ve gone as long as we can because we didn’t want to take money away from services, from our mission.”

So now the center is beginning a drive to raise the $200,000 necessary to safely fix and paint the church ceiling.

The PNC Foundation stepped forward as the first contributor to the effort, donating $10,000. An anonymous benefactor pitched in another $10,000, and an appeal to the center’s donors produced $11,000 in contributions.

“So thanks to their generosity we’re beginning with $31,000,” Sweat said. “We’ve identified about 12 to 14 foundations whose missions share the values of the work we do, so we’ll be contacting them. And we’ve talked with eight to ten other potential donors who’ve supported us in the past.”

What’s needed to make up the difference, though, are contributions from those who might be aware of the good work of St. John’s but haven’t donated in the past.

Jack and Jackie Lydon, members of the Cathedral of the Assumption parish, are helping with the campaign. Jack graduated from St. John School in 1957 and recalls that it was always a rather small parish.

“There were always two classes in one room when I was at school here,” he said during a recent interview at the St. John Center. “And when I graduated, there were only about 20 students in the class.”

He and Jackie are aware of the need for the repair and re-painting, and they are hoping that others with ties to the former parish will come to the center’s aid.

“A few years ago the wooden facade around the Blessed Mother just, for some reason, collapsed,” Jackie Lydon recalled. “It must have made an awful noise, but no one was hurt.”

And you can see the flaking plaster and peeling paint on the ceiling, which is a good 60 or 70 feet above the main floor of the former church.

“It’s a matter of safety; it really is,” Sweat concluded. “We really have to get this done.”

To formally kick off the campaign, the St. John Center will hold a reception from 2 to 4 p.m. Nov. 14. The staff is inviting those with ties to the former parish to visit, but they’re also inviting potential contributors to stop by and take a look at the shelter.

“We certainly want those who still feel a tie to the church to come by and to donate to this effort,” Sweat said. “But we want the community as a whole to help, too. We’ve put this off as long as we can.”

Those wishing to attend the event or contribute to the restoration project should call the center at 568-6758.

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