Thursday, April 27, 2000

Landmark quietly coming back

126-year-old Old St. George church rings anew as center for businesses, cultural events

By Larry Nager
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Old St. George Church in Clifton Heights is now an interfaith community center geared to youth, the arts and events such as this recent Scottish festival.
(Jeff Swinger photo)
| ZOOM |
        Old St. George has stood at the gateway to Clifton Heights for 125 years, but the magnificent church has seen better days.

        Its dwindling parish of well-to-do German-Catholic Cliftonites left in 1993. The tarnished brass-and-glass front doors that swung wide on thousands of Sundays need a good polishing.

        The landmark twin spires still reach to the same heaven as when Cincinnati's premier architect, Samuel Hannaford, built St. George Church in 1874. But to the casual stroller on Calhoun Street, there's a sad air of abandonment around the place, a sense of the impending wrecking ball.

        In 1994, that ball almost swung.

        “It was going to be a parking lot or fast food,” says Larry Bourgeois, who is directing Old St. George's rebirth, as a new community gathers in the Cincinnati landmark.

        Although the church doors are locked most of the time, there's a steady stream of traffic through the front of the friary in the building's west wing.

        Rooms where monks once lived have been converted to offices for campus ministry organizations, environmental groups and other community-oriented non-profitss. Weddings are held in the spacious Old World courtyard. Concerts are given in the elegant, wood-paneled library on the second floor.

        The basement has undergone the most drastic changes. It's become a TV production studio, where a group of young Christian music fans calling themselves Victory Videos produces a weekly program called 180 Videos(11:35 p.m. Saturdays on Channel 9).

        The Great Hall, a 700-seat venue, has its own lighting and sound systems and hosts concerts by diverse groups including Christian musicians, the Ass Ponys, folk and classical ensembles, Irish traditional music celebrations called ceilidhs (pronounced KAY-lees), theatrical plays and cultural festivals given by the local Indian, Asian and Hispanic communities. Weekdays, yoga classes spread their mats on the marble floors.

        But so far, unless you happen to belong to one of the groups involved, it's been a very quiet comeback. The skeletal staff at Old St. George has been too busy to publicize events. Even if they did, they're not sure they could handle bigger crowds and faster growth.

        “It is a secret,” Mr. Bourgeois says of Old St. George's rebirth. “People say, "Why don't you get a publicist?' It would have killed us a year ago. We had to grow the team, manage all these offices, care for the building.” @subHed:Bought for $500,000 @text:

        The secret started more than five years ago, when a small group of people believed the area needed an interfaith community center more than parking or burgers. Operating under the name Old St. George Inc., the non-profit ecumenical group, including the Christian Ministries Center, backed those beliefs with cash. They came up with the $500,000 to buy Old St. George in 1994.

        “The original vision for this place was just to save the structure,” says Mr. Bourgeois, 48, who has worked at Old St. George for five years, the past year as director.

        Despite the support of the Nippert and Corbett foundations, OSG Inc. still had to raise the $10,000 in monthly mortgage payments and expenses. Tenants were sought for the new office spaces and the building's larger rooms, and staging areas were offered to such presenting organizations as Cincinnati Folk Life.

        “We didn't have a focused development plan back then,” Mr. Bourgeois says. “We were just worried about coming up with the monthly loan payment.”

        Growth has been steady, at a rate of 25 percent annually. More money is being allocated to painting and plastering the interior, fixing the leaky roof, replacing rusted gutters. An air-conditioning system is planned.

        Mr. Bourgeois says it's well worth the trouble. “The library alone, it would take $750,000 just to build that room today. They could have sold the (stained-glass) windows (in the Great Hall) for what they paid for (the entire building).” @subhed:Rookwood tile floors @text:

        Any antiques lover can get happily lost in Old St. George. Earth-toned Rookwood tiles line the floors, stairways and bathrooms of the friary. The altar and sanctuary are marble, the altar bearing a carved pelican. Painted on the vaulted gilt ceiling above the altar are three huge, medieval angels.

        Old St. George's museum-quality appointments are a world away from the typical community center's utilitarian cinder-block, industrial carpet and fluorescent lighting.

        Mr. Bourgeois knows he works in a special place. He moved to the Tristate a decade ago from the San Francisco Bay area with his wife, Lisa Wharton, a Cincinnati native.

        Early on, he had planned to follow his father's career path and become an airline pilot. He earned his pilot's license at 17, but wound up on a different flight plan, entering seminary to become a priest. He soon found himself called to a different sort of spiritual community.

        “Coffeehouses were cool in the '60s and cool all over the world. And I thought our culture needs those community centers, for the arts, for conversation, for community renewal, whatever you want to call it,” he says in his office in the friary. With his gray-flecked beard and blue eyes twinkling behind wire-rim glasses, he looks like the social activist priest he nearly became.

        From 1984-1990, he ran Phoenix Bookstore & Espresso Cafe in the San Jose financial district. During his tenure, it consistently won awards for the area's best coffeehouse, presenting poet Allen Ginsberg, folk music icon Pete Seeger and a host of fine folk and jazz musicians. It also served as a hub of social activism, bringing in Latin-American, African-American and Asian-American groups. @:Top priority: Youth @text:

        The focus at Old. St. George is on youth. In addition to its weekly show, in October, Victory Videos produced a 5-K walk followed by a concert featuring three Christian rock bands. A weekly Christian coffeehouse is planned for Friday nights in the fall, and Mr. Bourgeois has called upon his background as an espresso importer and serious coffee maven to become guru of the Coffee Guild, which trains teens in the finer points of espresso, cappuccino and latte.

        And while the Tristate isn't quite the melting pot that California is, Old St. George has been a place of interfaith discussions among Christians, Jews, Hindus and Buddhists. A Tibetan Buddhist banquet is planned for late June.

        “It's a classic thing of breaking bread together, sharing a meal, sharing prayer or quiet or conversation, finding common ground,” says Mr. Bourgeois. “And we can do that more effectively than any place in town because we aren't affiliated (with any particular religion).

        That may be a fairly new idea in the Midwest, but coming from the West Coast, Mr. Bourgeois is used to it.

        “There's a huge trend today that a lot of people have a growing distrust of institutionally mediated religion,” he says. “It's a free market. You go on a retreat here; you do your yoga here; you may go to that bookstore; you listen to these tapes; you listen to that music.

        “A lot of the mainstream (religious) institutions hate that. (To them) that's just disloyal. But where I grew up in Silicon Valley, that's the culture — it's diverse, it's mix and match. And that's an asset, not a liability. It's America, that's what it is.”


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