Design by Choice

New Poughkeepsie church built according to preference of people in the pews

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When Al and Jane Frahm moved 33 years ago to the new St. Martin de Porres parish in Poughkeepsie, they were told that a church was in the planning stages. The parish was founded three years earlier, in 1962, with an all-purpose center that served as both church and meeting hall.

Frahm looked forward to the day the new church would take shape and finally saw his dream come true last February, when a salmon-colored brick, neo-Gothic structure was opened. Cardinal O'Connor dedicated the church and consecrated the altar at a Mass May 24.

"We waited a long time," Frahm told CNY. "We are really thrilled with the new church. This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, being present for the dedication of a church. It makes you feel a part of history."

Plans for the church had been talked about but never taken to the drawing board under previous pastors. When Father Brian E. McWeeney came to head the parish in 1994, the gradual increase in the number of parishioners and schoolchildren prompted him to sit down with the parish council and draft a strategy of service.

A new church was high on everyone's agenda. Father McWeeney solicited drafts from 10 architectural firms and posted the new church renderings in the parish hall with a comment sheet beneath each. More than 1,000 parishioners responded, stating their preferences and even suggesting that features from one rendering be incorporated into their choice. The final design was done by Demker Cackovic Architects of Nyack, and the builder was J. DeGroodt and Son of Pleasant Valley.

"It was a very democratic process," Frahm said. "It was like a Chinese menu approach. We could pick one feature from column A, another from column B. In the end, we got just the church we wanted. It's already taken on a character of its own."

The new church seats 600 (compared to 350 in the old church) and has comfortably accommodated the increased attendance at the seven weekend Masses. The parish has 2,400 registered families, about 1,500 of whom are regulars, Father McWeeney said.

The parish school, with pre-K to eighth grade, has an enrollment of 309 students for September, an increase of more than 70 over the past four years.

"We're a growing parish, and the new church comes at just the right time of this growth," the pastor said. "We have always been family-oriented and community-oriented, but the church gives us an even stronger identity in those areas."

Traditional in design yet with a contemporary look, the church incorporates aspects of the cathedrals of Europe and the open, colorful appearance of South American churches. The pointed roof, bell tower and rose window are visible from a distance. A statue of St. Martin de Porres, a Dominican brother from Peru who was porter for his community and known for his miracles, dominates the flagstone plaza. The saint wears the garb of an oblate brother and carries a broom, a sign of his humble service to his community and to visitors at the church door.

He was canonized in 1962, the same year the Nativity parish in Poughkeepsie was enlarged and planning to build a new church. According to parish records, the expanded parish received its new name when Cardinal Francis Spellman, who attended St. Martin's canonization ceremony while in Rome for the Second Vatican Council, called archdiocesan officials to tell them to rename Nativity after the new saint.

Father McWeeney said that true to St. Martin's spirit, the parish has humbly remained with the all-purpose center built that year until growth and funds could secure a new church.

Stained-glass windows depict saints and holy men and women of North and South America and let in a flood of colored light from the sanctuary and apses. The saints, chosen by parishioners, include St. Rose of Lima, St. Peter Claver, Blessed Juan Diego, Blessed Miguel Pro, St. Frances Xavier Cabrini, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, Venerable Pierre Toussaint, St. Isaac Jogues and Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha. The sanctuary has two windows devoted to the Nativity and others depicting SS. Peter and Paul and St. Martin de Porres.

Groundbreaking took place on the feast of St. Martin de Porres Nov. 3, 1996. The statue, sculpted by Arden Witherwax of Pleasant Valley, was blessed on the feast day the following year. The first Mass was celebrated on Christmas Eve 1997, the 35th anniversary of the first Mass celebrated in the all-purpose center. The new church was closed for two months for finishing touches and opened permanently at the end of February.

The church building cost $2 million, with related expenses adding approximately $1 million. A parish campaign netted $1.75 million, and a mortgage accounts for the remainder.

The multiuse center will become "Nativity Center: An Inter-Generational Experience," which will combine services for senior citizens and preschool children. The center will be proof of the parish commitment to life at all its stages, said Father McWeeney, an ethic embodied in St. Martin de Porres.

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