When The Salem Mission decided in 2009 to turn the historic St. Mary's Italian Church into an apartment building, a crusade of angry neighbors and local artists banded together to halt the conversion.
Since then, many things have changed: The Salem Mission, now called Lifebridge, put the church up for sale until Aug. 30 at $570,000, and that group of neighbors and artists formed a team of preservationists in hopes of rejuvenating the space, saving the art and opening the building to the public as a multipurpose center.
In an effort to raise both awareness and funds, the collaborative group now known as Salem Community Arts Center Organization (SCAC) will host an event they're calling "Get-Together" on Thursday, July 8, at the Christopher Columbus Society Hall on 24 Endicott Street in Salem. "Get-Together" will start at 5:30 p.m. and will include a dinner buffet for $20 per person, accompanied by a short film about St. Mary's made by Joe Cultrera, a local filmmaker and lead spokesperson for the SCAC.
"The enthusiasm of this growing group is pretty encouraging," said Cultrera. "There always was a strong contingent within the Italian neighborhood to preserve the church, but it's heartening to see so many different people and groups catching a vision for what an arts center could bring to Salem and the North Shore."
Ellen Hardy, president of the Salem Arts Association, is one those people. She has joined some 40 to 50 individuals from eight different community groups affiliated with the arts, business, historic preservation, and religion to preserve the church and make it a public space.
"We need to recognize that church buildings were important community connectors," she said. "I got involved because as an artist living in Salem, I thought it was long overdue for the city to have a community arts center. If [Salem] supported the arts in a much wider context, they would have a much richer community because of it."
Cultrera said the church was built in 1925 as a gift to the community intended for future generations to enjoy. With five types of marble imported from Italy, some of the statues and relics likely came from there. The Fresco above the main altar was painted on site by artists brought in from Florence, Italy, as were all the wall murals.
If adequate funds are raised, he said the SCAC plans to open its doors to the entire community. With enough space to comfortably seat 300, St. Mary's could provide concert space for musicians and artists as well as space for exhibits of new art. It could also serve for special functions, such as church worship, weddings, conferences, theater and even offices for local nonprofits.
"We are hoping that the July 8 event will re-energize the whole effort and lead to a major fundraiser," said Chris Gilbert, a filmmaker, member of the SCAC and elder at the North Point Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Peabody, a small congregation considering involvement at St. Mary's so as to bring a worship service back to the building. "We need to raise enough money by the August deadline because we see this is an important investment for everyone."
SCAC has already raised $25,000 and hopes that another large fundraiser scheduled for Friday, Aug. 6 at Old Town Hall, Salem, will build on that. Still with a lot of spirit and big plans on the horizon, SCAC members look onward with optimism.
"We want this to be a positive campaign, to do something with St. Mary's that we all can be a part of," said Cultrera. "We are going to raise the money and get the church back. I have no doubt that this is going to happen."