The owner of the former Grace Episcopal Church on Roanoke Avenue is seeking to demolish the church and another historic building on its property to build new worship space, but is facing opposition from the town’s Landmark Preservation Commission.
The Episcopal Diocese of Long Island is seeking to demolish the more than 150-year-old church building, recently known as Centro Franciscano, as well as a two-story historic home at 434 Griffing Avenue.
While the diocese pursues demolition permits from the town, the church’s parish and other groups who made the church their home are displaced.
As of now, renovations of the historic church are not on the table, according to Denise Fillion, the director of communications for the Episcopal Diocese of Long Island. The diocese wants to demolish the building, she said.
The cost of repairs, Fillion said, “would be more than the property is worth.”
According to the Rev. Gerardo Romo, the pastor of the church, the building has had some serious problems. “We can’t just keep doing patches, every week there is something else to do,” he said.
The last straw, though, was when a hot water pipe burst in the church with “scalding water,” Romo said. After the incident, the diocese sent an inspector who determined that the building was not fit for repairs.
The Griffing Avenue home has also been a problem for the diocese, Fillion said. The buildings were boarded up once squatters were discovered on the site. Four people were also arrested at the property, Riverhead Police Chief David Hegermiller said.
Fillion said that there are more concerns about squatters as the weather gets colder. According to her, the diocese doesn’t want the buildings to become a “more attractive place” during the winter, despite its safety issues.
“We don’t want it to be unsafe for the people who are squatting there, and we want to have a safe space for the school,” Fillion said.
Richard Wines, Landmarks Preservation Commission Chair, said both buildings have a deep historical value. Both of the buildings are in Riverhead’s Downtown Historic District.
The Grace Episcopal Church was built in 1871, the preferred ministry of Riverhead’s leading businessmen, Wines said. The stained glass windows inside the church have the names of many old Riverhead families who were members of the congregation.
The Griffing Avenue property is the Fred Hallett House, a contributing resource to the downtown historic district. It was built around 1893 by J. Fred Hallett, the son of one of Riverhead’s greatest architects of the time, and it features designs that are emblematic of the late Victorian architectural style, Wines said.
“It’s part of one of the finest surviving late 19th century streetscapes,” Wines said.
While Fillion said the diocese intends to demolish both structures, only the Fred Hallett House has been in front of the Landmarks Preservation Commission, in the diocese’s pursuit of a demolition permit.
The diocese said the Fred Hallett house is too expensive to restore, estimating the cost of renovations to be around $400,000, according to a written decision from the Landmarks Preservation Commission.
The Landmarks Preservation Commission met with the diocese on July 24, and, in a written opinion the next day, recommended the Town Board deny the diocese’s application. In its opinion, the commission said the diocese could make more money on selling the home to a restoration-minded buyer than demolishing it.
The commission also had “no choice but to deny their request,” Wines said, citing the Fred Hallett House’s status as a “contributing resource” to the downtown historic district. The Town Board has not issued a demolition permit.
“We may appeal it,” Fillion said, if the town rejected the diocese’s application for a demolition permit.
Despite the aspirations of the diocese, Fillion had little to say about what would replace the properties once the buildings are demolished. “The hope is that there would be the ability to take down that building, and redevelop that with something that would continue to provide worship space,” Fillion said.
The property is located in the Downtown Center 3 (DC-3) zoning district, which allows, as of right, townhouses, restaurants, cafes, bakeries with retail sales on premises, offices, schools, places of worship, parking facilities, movie theaters, art galleries and schools. The zoning also allows, by special permit, hotels, taverns, indoor recreation facilities, day care centers, nursery schools, dormitories, single family dwellings and bed and breakfast establishments.
Fillion said “there are no concrete plans at the moment” to build housing on the site.
As the diocese continues to pursue future plans for the property, the church’s parish sits in limbo.
The congregation at Grace Episcopal Church has gotten smaller over the years. In 2021, the church was reorganized as Centro Franciscano. As the Centro Franciscano, the church continued to minister, but also provided spaces for various nonprofits and religious groups.
Romo’s congregation has found itself in a transitory period. Right now, the only service that his ministry is able to provide is the Eucharist on Sundays, in rented space at Roanoke Avenue Elementary School. The church used to offer regular church services, in addition to English as a Second Language classes, Spanish literacy classes and a non-perishable food pantry. These services are now halted, at least temporarily, Romo said.
Regular services were last held in the church Feb. 12, Romo said. Despite the months of limited ministry, he stayed optimistic. “We, the people, are the church — not the buildings… the ministry carries on,” he said.
Romo’s congregation was not the only organization that used the Centro Franciscano. Rural & Migrant Ministry, a nonprofit seeking to help farm and rural workers, also used the property to hold several programs, including a summer day program for children and large-group trainings.
“We’ve had to cut back,” Richard Witt, executive director at Rural & Migrant Ministry said. “We’re spread out, we’re scrambled.”
“We can have small-group workshops and trainings, what-have-you, but having large-group just makes it really difficult,” Witt said. The Rural & Migrant Ministry continues to offer services out of its office, on the same property as the church, on a more limited scale. “We don’t want the community to think that because the building’s boarded up that we are boarded up.”
The church being boarded up, Witt said, is “just a sad message.”
Correction: This article has been amended to correct a statement that the property is within the Railroad Avenue overlay district. The original version of this article relied on a zoning map prepared by Riverhead Town’s former planning consulting firm, AKRF, which was inaccurate. The property is located within the DC-3 zoning district but is outside the Railroad Avenue overlay district.
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