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Church of the Ascension to be converted to senior housing

Faced with the burden of caring for its aging building, a shrinking downtown Episcopal church is relocating to another parish in the city, while its longtime home on Linwood Avenue will be converted into a senior housing project by the operator of Canterbury Woods.

The Church of the Ascension at 16 Linwood Ave. at the corner of North Street will move three miles north to the campus of the Church of the Good Shepherd at 96 Jewett Parkway. It also will rename itself the Church of the Ascension at Good Shepherd, according to a press release and posting on its website.

“When caring for a building limits the energy a congregation has for ministry, it’s time for a change,” the church posted on its website. “The church is not a building. Any church, Ascension included, is really a group of people in close relationship with God and one another.”

Officials stressed, though, that the two churches are not merging. The congregations have maintained a “covenant relationship” since 2011, the website continued, so sharing space “made perfect sense” to both churches when Ascension began looking for a new base. However, Ascension will maintain its own congregation and its 4:30 p.m. Sunday service and monthly Pet Food Pantry.

“The Church of the Ascension is not closing,” the website said. “Rather, it is evolving, adapting to the 21st century reality of how to be the church.”

Like many parishes, Ascension has been shrinking as the demographics around it changed. The parish had 338 active members in 1975, but membership plunged to just 39 in 2013, according to the Episcopal Diocese of Western New York.

That created urgent financial pressures that threatened the church’s future. Over the past three years alone, the church has spent nearly $80,000 on building maintenance. If it had not taken these steps, it would have closed within six months, said Laurie Wozniak, spokeswoman for the Episcopal Diocese of Western New York.

“The congregation of the Church of the Ascension is committed to mission work. When the cost of maintaining the building on North Street began to negatively affect that work, the decision to move was made prayerfully and with much deliberation,” said the Rev. Cathy Dempesy-Sims, Ascension’s priest.

“The congregation and I believe that in doing so, we are being good stewards of both our money and the building, which will go on to serve the surrounding community in new ways.”

The 164-year-old church’s historic building will now be re-purposed for senior housing by Episcopal Church Home & Affiliates, which runs the high-end continuing care community Canterbury Woods in Amherst and is constructing a similar but smaller facility at the former Millard Fillmore Gates Circle Hospital site.

The nonprofit company also owns Episcopal Community Housing Development Organization and Episcopal Community Housing Inc., which will develop and manage this project. Episcopal Community Housing already owns or manages 203 apartments at four properties in Wheatfield, Amherst, Angola and Buffalo.

Plans call for the Ascension church sanctuary to be preserved for community space while part of the campus is converted to 25 to 30 affordable senior apartments for those aged 55 and older, who live on fixed incomes. Officials will work with the local neighborhood to determine a community use.

“This is an example of our Diocese’s commitment to making sure a congregation survives while ensuring that our historic buildings continue to serve people and contribute to a better quality of life in Buffalo and all of Western New York,” said Diocesan Bishop R. William Franklin.

Episcopal Church Home officials hope to start work by late 2015, after various approvals are in place.

“This project unites our mission with an extraordinary opportunity,” said Rob Wallace, president and CEO of Episcopal Church Homes. “Generations of Western New Yorkers have known Ascension as their spiritual home. Now, we have the chance to bring a new sense of home to the corner of North and Linwood for future generations of seniors in our community, while maintaining the community focus that has been central to Ascension’s history.”

The Ascension Church was incorporated in 1855 by a group of Episcopal families, and the cornerstone of the existing brownstone building was laid on May 9, 1872. The cost of construction was $37,000. The first services were held there in April 1873. A rectory was added on Linwood Avenue in 1898, at a cost of $3,600, while a parish house was built starting in July 1920. The basement was renovated into kitchen and dining rooms, now known as Broughton Hall.

Ascension Church’s sanctuary features a high-vaulted ceiling, a hand-carved altar adorned with brass, woodwork and masonry with rich detail, three stained-glass windows and a pipe organ. Its parish hall, partially designed by E.B. Green and now used for coffee and socializing, includes French doors, a small stage, an open floor plan and historic woodwork.

The grounds are adorned with trees, shrubs, gardens, historic sidewalks, benches and prayer areas, memorials and a flag pole.

Ascension will hold its final service at its current building on Jan. 6 at 7 p.m., celebrated by Bishop Franklin.

The congregation will begin holding its worship services at Good Shepherd on Jan. 11.