When believers think of a place to worship, they likely imagine a beautiful, peaceful temple visitors can pray at and enjoy. For many who attend services at St. Stephen’s United Methodist Church in Marble Hill, that’s typically what they’d get.
However, the structure turns 125 this year, and it’s starting to show as congregants struggle through a pandemic and lower attendance at both English- and Spanish-language services to keep up.
But it wasn’t until the remnants of Hurricane Ida decimated the area back in September that the situation really became dire at the West 228th Street church.
“The money is an issue as far as getting the building fixed,” said Naomi Gonzalez, president of the church’s board of trustees, in Spanish. “We need money. We need funding.”
While repairs are needed everywhere, if Gonzalez had her way, however, all of that would start at the church’s bell tower — a centerpiece architectural feature of the building’s exterior that has been crumbling for nearly a decade. The wood, which holds the roof in place, is rotting and needs to be replaced.
If that weren’t enough, shingles are missing from the roof, making it difficult to keep rainwater from dripping inside. Once that happens, it’s almost impossible for anyone not to see how much the church’s roof struggles to keep the rain out.
The conditions have become so dangerous, in fact, church officials were forced to remove the bell from atop the tower. But it wasn’t the first thing to go from the tower.
In 2012, the very symbol of the church’s Christian faith — its cross — had to be pulled from the tower after the remnants of a different storm — Hurricane Sandy — pulverized the area.
Other needed repairs include floor work at the sanctuary entrance, as well as water damage repair on a number of different walls.
Not too long ago, the church kept up with such repairs by relying on its members. But the pandemic and overall declines in people heading out to church on Sundays have changed everything. And money is not flowing in anywhere as fast as water through the ceiling during a heavy storm.
In fact, the pandemic has cut off English-language worship services as well as Tuesday Bible studies classes since November 2020. Without that, it’s even harder for the church to fund the repairs because there’s no one around to pass a collection plate to.
Gonzalez, who has made the church her spiritual home for nearly five years, typically joins the Spanish-language congregation, which still meets several times throughout the week in the church’s lower level.
But the group is relatively small compared to its English-speaking counterpart.
As part of the church’s board, Gonzalez is responsible for maintaining the upkeep of the church’s structure.
“It’s a challenge, but I wanted to do it because I certainly don’t want the building to be closed (because of a) lack of money,” she said. “And I want the repairs to be done so that this sanctuary can be used again.”
Gonzalez hopes maybe some of the local electeds will catch wind of their plight and offer to help — especially considering what parishioners offer the community outside of its religious practices.
That includes the Marble Hill food pantry, an Alcoholics Anonymous program, and educational workshops covering a number of matters like nutrition and gardening.
The church also hosts flea markets, itself a resource for many who may need the extra money such an outlet presents, or simply access inexpensive items.
Gonzalez also has one other very special project.
“I would love to put up the bell again,” she said, so that I can hear this church on the hill ringing on Sunday mornings.”
It’s a sound many — like Dorothy Shepherd — could hear in the furthest parts of Marble Hill Houses. The finance chair for the English-language congregation, Shepherd still visits the church premises, helping in areas like the food pantry.
She’s been an active at St. Stephen’s for 30 years.
“The last time the building had any restoration, it cost the church half a million dollars,” Shepherd said. “That was acquired through donations and grants.”
The need for repairs isn’t anything new for Dorothy. In fact, that’s been almost as constant as God’s presence over the last two decades.
“We’ve had that roof repaired, fixed up and patched before at least four or five times,” Shepherd said.
The building was restored 10 years ago — partially, with only two sides completed. Now those non-renovated sides are deteriorating even more, thanks to regular water damage sustained over a number of years.
“We’ve been looking for donations just to get the roof done,” Shepherd said. “We’re doing Phase I now, which is almost finished. The only thing they have to do now is put the skylight in the middle of the center.”
Shepherd hopes once repairs are complete, the church can welcome back its long-time members, and maybe even say hello to some new faces. And those new members are vital to keep St. Stephen’s going another 125 years.
“We lost a lot of members,” Shepherd said. “So many of them were elderly.”
With the Rev. Hermon Darden retiring in June, Shepherd hopes to see some of the repairs begin making it a less stressful transition for whoever the new minister will be. Either way, the new leader will need to be able to take on the mantle of nourishing the church both spiritually, and when it comes to structural damage, quite physically.
“We need somebody young, approachable, and vibrant just to help get the community together,” Shepherd said.
Despite the church’s woes over the past decade, Shepherd says congregants still have a lot to be grateful for during these difficult times.
“After 125 years, God has been good to St. Stephen’s,” Shepherd said. “And it’s a beautiful building.”