Grace upon Grace in the city

A small parish of just 80 members in the city center of Allentown, Pennsylvania, has just completed a major renovation of its liturgical space. Grace has created ”a beautiful, practical and liturgically useful” space that has deepened their worship and expanded the capacity of the parish to minister in their neighborhood.


The Morning Call says that during the project every time a need has presented itself, help arrived, often from unexpected places:

It’s tempting to imagine providence at work in the renovation of Grace Episcopal Church, an Allentown landmark where congregants with an evergreen passion for the Gospel had grown ever less enamored of the vinyl floor, immovable pews and faded 1960s decor.

Even the rector, Father Patrick Malloy, described the look of the place as ”basement rumpus-roomy,” but transformation — new floors, new seats, a coat of paint — seemed out of reach.

The 19th century church at Fifth and Linden has only 80 members and not much money. And virtually all its resources, financial and human, are funneled into its fundamental mission of outreach to the city’s dispossessed.

But a few strokes of good fortune and an outpouring of volunteerism let the people of Grace reshape the church for far less than anyone dared to hope. And that has given a renewed sense of energy and purpose to parishioners, who consider the little church an essential part of downtown’s past, present and future.

When other mainline churches left downtown, Grace Church chose to stay in the city even as the numbers dropped from a couple of hundred to about eighty. Their reach into the neighborhood is far beyond their size: their mission includes a Montessori school, a food pantry and neighborhood outreach. The parish frequently partners with the Baum School of Art across the street.

”They’re incredibly important,” said Mayor Ed Pawlowski, who frequently champions the value of faith communities to cities. ”They do some amazing work in the community with their after-school program, their homeless initiatives, their food program.Â? They’re a stabilizing force in the community.”

What started out as disaster–a leaky roof which caused the church to flood after heavy rains–turned into an ongoing blessing.

In July, heavy rains broke through and flooded the liturgical space, damaging the floor.

Renovation turned from wish to necessity, but where to find the money?

That’s where providence seemed to enter the story. At a summertime memorial service, Brian Brinker of Coplay, grandson-in-law of a longtime member, saw the flood damage and offered to donate $26,000 in terrazzo flooring material if the church would pay for labor.

The labor turned out to be covered by the insurance settlement from the flood damage, with $6,000 left over. That money paid for a new lectionary (a book of readings) and projector, plus paint and other supplies.

People often comment to Father Malloy that they admire the work that the parish is doing in downtown Allentown, but they don’t join in because would not feel safe going to their neighborhood. Father Patrick says that after a recent break-in, “the police came and said, not that you have to expect such things in this neighborhood, but that these things never happen in this neighborhood. Robberies and burglaries are the plague of the wealthy neighborhoods in the western part of the city.” The perception of the neighborhood as dangerous is one of the obstacles the parish continually works to overcome.

The renovation to the worship space included removing the pews, ripping up and installing a new terrazzo floor, creating an open space where people gather facing each other for the liturgy of the word and then move as a group to be around the altar for the Eucharist. The remarkable thing is that every time help was needed to move forward with the project, it arrived usually from unexpected places. Between these unexpected gifts and the volunteer labor of parishioners and others, Grace Church was transformed. Most important of all is that, through this project, the intimate relationship between the neighborhood and the parish has been renewed right along with the worship space.

Read the Morning Call article and the accompanying video about the project here.

See a slide show showing the progress of the work here.

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