HAMMONTON — From the outside, St. Martin de Porres church looks very much the same as it did in the 1960s: cream-colored concrete, tan stone siding, gold-trimmed stained glass. Inside, however, all the religious items have been removed.
A local family has been working to transform the building into a performing-arts center.
“We’re going to remove all the pews. We’re going to install a stage where the altar was,” said Kevin Rodio, who purchased the former Catholic church on Egg Harbor Road in November for about $600,000.
Rodio is renovating the 20,000-square-foot former church into what he calls Kathedral. As the Catholic Church continues to downsize in the region, some residents, especially those who live by or attended St. Martin, say they are happy to see the space repurposed instead of demolished like some other Catholic properties in South Jersey.
“I do miss the church bells and the Christmas Eve Mass. They were good memories,” said Frances Catrambone, who has lived on Chestnut Street next door to the church for 40 years. “But it will be nice for the town of Hammonton to have the Kathedral event center. That will bring back good memories of the building.”
Rodio goes before the Hammonton Zoning Board next month for a variance as the property is located in a residential zone. If the variance is approved, Rodio said he is ready to move forward immediately.
The church has been “desanctified,” meaning all religious artifacts were removed from the property, including the cornerstone, Rodio said. All that remains connecting the space to the faith are the vaulted ceiling and the stained glass windows.
“We’re going to put in any type of events that a high-end performing arts center in the region would handle,” Rodio said, including weddings, corporate functions, concerts, dance recitals and theater.
This property is one of 12 church-owned buildings in the region that have been sold since the Diocese of Camden began a major consolidation effort in 2010, reducing its parishes from 124 to 64, said diocese spokesman Michael Walsh. This year, the St. James School and convent in Ventnor and the former Assumption Church in Galloway Township were torn down.
St. Martin’s was consolidated with St. Joseph’s and St. Anthony of Padua to form Saint Mary of Mt. Carmel Parish in 2010. The church was used as a worship site for several years following the consolidation. Walsh said Sunday Masses ended in January 2013 and all services at the church ended in October 2013. It was listed for sale in June 2014, with the parish and diocese approving the new use.
Rodio owns Spellcaster Productions, an audio-visual company based in the Elm section of Winslow Township.
At Spellcaster, Rodio puts on corporate events and concerts, providing everything from sound to lighting to live performers. He’s worked with Ludacris, Ke$ha and Gavin DeGraw, but he has lacked a space to host his own events.
“It had been sitting vacant, and it was depressing that such an amazing space was just sitting there collecting dust,” Rodio said of the church.
So he worked with a local real estate agent, and within a month, the space was his. Last week, demolition of the inside began as Rodio and his family ripped out pews and other items. Eventually, he plans to renovate the basement into a banquet space.
St. Martin is situated between Hammonton Lake Park, which hosts football and baseball games throughout the year, and the Atlantic County Library. It backs up to a residential neighborhood at Park Avenue and Chestnut Street.
Mayor Steve DiDonato said the location is a perfect fit for the performing arts center.
“You have mixed-use, you have industrial across the street,” he said of Massarelli’s, Universal Supply and a town Public Works building along Egg Harbor Road.
DiDonato said he thought taxpayers would be happy to have the building on the tax rolls, as the church was exempt from property taxes.
“When it’s fully running, it will generate some customers in town,” he said. “When you have traffic for your town, it’s a positive thing.”
On a Crowley and Carr Realtor Facebook post announcing the new ownership, comments were mostly positive. Many offered “congratulations” to the new owner, and some talked about getting married at the church, or remembering their children’s baptisms there.
“Initially, when the Catholic Church wanted to sell that building off, I think there was some concern or some angst from the residents,” DiDonato said.
He said he believes people will get used to the new use.
Bianca Herrmann also lives close by to the building. She attended church, got married and had her children baptized at St. Martin.
“I was definitely sad to see the church close because it was my church growing up,” she said. “But it was sadder to see that property unused and vacant for such a long time.”
Herrmann said she is hopeful the new owners will be mindful of the neighborhood and that the event space will be a good thing for the town.
Although Rodio said he can’t be responsible for preserving people’s memories, his intention is to keep the building maintained and a part of the community.
Rodio said Kathedral will not be a nightclub and will likely be used twice a weekend.
“I don’t want to bludgeon the community with something like that,” he said.