October 28, 2020
MERIDEN — St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church is planning to move from its iconic home — with a towering brownstone steeple that has long anchored the corner of Catlin and East Main streets — to a new smaller building along a rolling hillside nearly three miles east.
It’s a move that the Rev. Mark Byers, pastor of St. Andrew’s since 2018, described as both poignant and hopeful.
“We see this as a hopeful sign for our future. We’re moving into a place more suitable for immediate needs and our future needs. So we can serve our community better,” Byers said.
The move will enable St. Andrew’s leaders to focus on its ministry moving forward, Byers explained.
“The long and the short of it is we wanted to get more focused on the church’s mission and to not spend so much time with the upkeep of a historic building,” Byers said. “… We’re primarily a faith community that is interested in serving and transforming unity.”
Church leaders have proposed building a new structure that is smaller in size and requires less maintenance than the current one.
Representatives for St. Andrew’s presented its proposal to construct a new church building on a more than 4.8 acre lot at 94 Preston Ave., which is currently vacant, to three city boards earlier this month. The Zoning Board of Appeals, the Planning Commission and the city’s Inland Wetlands and Watercourse Commission all voted to approve the church’s plans.
The church sought a special exception permit under city zoning regulations that would allow it to build a house of worship in what is currently designated as an R-1 single-family residential district. According to regulations, places of worship and public assembly, like St. Andrew’s, can seek a special exception from the Zoning Board of Appeals to allow the construction of such facilities in those districts.
“I think that we all hope that the building is preserved as a place of worship,” Byers said of the church’s current location.
The more than 20,000-square-foot “gable-roofed Romanesque Revival” building first opened its doors to St. Andrew’s parishioners in 1867. At the time it opened, the building became the church’s third location since its founding in 1775.
Hartford-based firm Chozick Realty posted its listing for the building on the commercial brokerage site Loopnet.com over the summer, with a $995,000 asking price. The listing touts the sale as an opportunity to own a building it describes as “beautiful and historic.” In addition to the church’s brownstone structure, it also features an ornate altar, stained-glass windows, a hand-carved choir stalls and a 38-rank pipe organ in its rear balcony.
The proposed new building was designed with concerns about traffic flow on Preston Avenue and the impact on the neighboring community in mind.
After feedback from city officials, the applicants revised the proposed project to make one-way entry and exit points to and from the parking lot.
The applicants also proposed Dynamic Speed Feedback Signs, which use radar to detect the speed of oncoming vehicles, to deter speeding in the area. The section of Preston Avenue where the church would be built is along a long curving stretch of the roadway.
A traffic study submitted by the applicants stated the installation of DSF Signs reduced the percentage of crashes and reduced the speed of traffic overall.
“The DSFS’s will help provide safe access to the church during worship hours, but will also benefit residents living on Preston Avenue and other drivers who use the roadway and will help address some of the long lasting concerns for Preston Avenue,” read a letter from the Meriden-based traffic engineering firm KWH Enterprise, LLC.
Paul Dickson, the city’s acting director of planning, said with the recent approvals, the next step for the applicants is to apply for a building permit.
With the modifications that were proposed, city officials appeared in support of the project.
Dickson noted the street facing portion of the proposed 5,000-square-foot church is actually a one-story structure, which respects the site and the characteristics of the neighborhood. The rear portion of the building would be built into a rolling hillside.
“It’s two and a half stories, all glass. The way they wanted to use the site really respects the site,” Dickson said.
Byers said the church’s current home had provided St. Andrew’s with “good service for a long time.” But there are challenges associated with it.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic forced churches like St. Andrew’s to pause in-person services, the church saw a regular attendance of 70 to 80 parishioners at each of those services. Like other churches, St. Andrew’s congregation has dwindled in numbers over the years.
“A lot of our parishioners are older and it is very difficult to get into the building,” Byers said.
Church leaders weighed the options of retrofitting the existing home, versus planning a new building. The latter option appeared to make more sense.
The proposed building will be more accessible, without parishioners needing to walk up steps, Byers explained.
Church leaders had been looking around for potential new sites several months ago. The lot on Preston Avenue emerged as the most attractive option.
“We looked at other options. Here we have a piece of land large enough to build a church with a parking lot,” Byers said. “…we wanted to stay in Meriden.”
The church will use proceeds from the sale to fund the new building.
“It’s a lovely old building. We hope the sale of that building and some of the contents will allow us to build,” Byers said. “We’re building economically and simply. We’re not building an extravagant structure.”
Church leaders are planning for transition space to fill the gap between when its current home is sold and when the new building is complete.
“We think refocusing on things important to the church’s life is what’s needed,” Byers said.