Yankee Mariano Rivera's ultimate 'save': New Rochelle church

Yankee pitcher Mariano Rivera is building a new

Yankee pitcher Mariano Rivera is building a new church on North Avenue in New Rochelle. (May 15, 2013)

Yankees star relief pitcher Mariano Rivera is about to record what could be the biggest save of his career.

Rivera, who is expected to close out a stellar 20-year career at the end of this season, will spend about $3 million to renovate a century-old Presbyterian church on New Rochelle's North Avenue. It's not known how much Rivera, who will earn $10 million this year, is contributing to the project and how much will come from other donors, but the once fire-damaged eyesore is well on its way to regaining its former grandeur.

When the project is completed this year, the church will provide a house of worship for his wife Clara's small Pentecostal congregation, Refuge of Hope.


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The gray-stone church -- wedged between vacant storefronts and the city's police station and court -- is owned by the city and has sat idle for nearly 40 years, as city officials and others have debated what to do with the crumbling sliver of history.

That was until the 43-year-old baseball giant who lives in Purchase stepped up to the plate about two years ago with an offer to save the building. Under a deal with the city, the Riveras will gain ownership of the property for $1 after the renovations are finished by the end of the summer.

A devout born-again Christian, Rivera said he sees the multimillion-dollar project as God's work.

During a recent visit to the church -- now enclosed with chain-link fence covered with faded green fabric -- Rivera listened intently as contractors walked him through the construction site and updated him on progress. Dressed in sweatpants and a blue fleece top, the pitcher questioned the work that needs to be done.

Rivera has worked on other church projects through his nonprofit foundation, in his native Panama and in Mexico, but said this one has been the most challenging. He complained about the bureaucratic rigmarole of getting building permits and the difficulties of working with old buildings.

"It's been a lot work," Rivera said, looking up at workers on scaffolds painting wooden trim.

"It's my way of serving the Lord and giving back to this community. New Rochelle is where I first came after moving here from Panama and I fell in love with it."

SAVING A PIECE OF HISTORY

The former Presbyterian church, built in 1907, boasted one of the city's largest congregations until the 1970s, when membership dwindled and it merged with another church. New Rochelle bought the building in 1977 for $285,000, with plans to turn it into a community theater, but couldn't come up with the money to renovate the building.

The church fell into disrepair, to the point where the city was forced to dismantle its historic bell tower at a cost of more than $100,000. Various pitches were made to sell or demolish the church, but none of them gained traction.

"The building was in horrible condition and would have required a significant investment simply to stabilize it," said Mayor Noam Bramson, who voted with the city council in 2011 to approve the deal with the Riveras. "The city did not have the resources to save this building, so this arrangement permits us to offload what would have been a costly public responsibility."

Other officials have been critical of the arrangement, saying the city should have gotten more out of the deal.

"We're strapped for money, we were talking about raising taxes and laying off firefighters, and we're giving away a city asset valued at more than $750,000 for a buck?" said Councilman Louis Trangucci, a Republican who voted against the plan. "The guy's a millionaire. We could have asked for something more than one buck."

Bramson and others who approved the agreement stand behind the decision. They say the deal will restore a treasured piece of the city's history at virtually no cost to taxpayers.

The fact that the project is being headed by a Yankees legend doesn't hurt the city's image, proponents of the deal suggest.

RENOVATIONS TO TOP $3 MILLION

Joe Fosina, a former New Rochelle councilman who works for the Yankees, is helping Rivera with the renovation project. He got to know Rivera before the pitcher became famous as the Yankees' celebrated closer -- the pitcher relied upon to finish the game when his team is ahead. The two are now close friends.

Rivera was looking for a building for his wife's 50 or so congregants, who had been worshipping on the grounds of their sprawling estate in Purchase. Rivera already was involved in New Rochelle through his Clubhouse Grill restaurant on Memorial Highway (formerly "Mo's Grill"). So Fosina started hunting around for properties.

"He called me one day and said I'm looking at this building on Main Street for a church," Fosina recalled. "I told him it wasn't worth it, but there's an old church on North Avenue. It's been abandoned for years, and the city doesn't want it."

Fosina said the project has preserved about 90 percent of the original building, including ornate stained glass windows and wooden rafters. The tiled roof has been repaired and gray stone and mortar refurbished. The altar and pews have been removed while renovation work is in process, but will soon be reinstalled. All the interior walls of the church have been replastered.

The renovations originally were estimated to cost $3 million, Fosina said, but some unexpected costs have driven the total up slightly.

Parking is an issue the builders are still working on and Rivera said he is talking with the city about using spots behind the police station.

Then there's the issue of the sewer lines from the building, which are more than 100 years old. "But we're going to get it all worked out," Fosina said. "It's a beautiful church. It's going to be great when it's done."

'IT'S BEEN A LABOR OF LOVE'

Rivera, 12-time All-Star and five-time World Series champion, has described his cut fastball -- a pitch that veers wickedly toward righthanded hitters -- as a "gift from God" and uses a glove inscribed with a verse from the Bible, Philippians 4:13: "I can do all things through Christ, who strengthens me."

The father of three sons said he plans to devote his life to philanthropy and religion after he leaves the pitching mound this fall. He talks about sharing in the ministry with his wife.

"We all need Christ," he said.

The Mariano Rivera Foundation already distributes at least half a million dollars a year, mostly to underprivileged children through church-based institutions both in Panama -- where he grew up -- and in the U.S. He has helped fund the reconstruction of other churches, in Panama and Mexico.

Naomi Gandia, secretary for the foundation, said the church renovations have generated support from across the country. All of the money has been raised personally by Rivera, with help from local organizations, she said.

"People have literally walked up to the church and asked how they could help," Gandia said. "It's been a labor of love."

JUST AN AVERAGE GUY

From his small barber shop across from the church, Kenny Rivera, 51 and no relation, has watched the restoration make steady progress during the past two years.

"He's doing a great job," said Kenny Rivera, showing a reporter an autographed photo of Mariano. "That place was a dump and fixing it up is good for the community. I just wish they didn't get rid of the bell tower."

Most business owners are enthusiastic about the reopening of the church, Kenny Rivera said, adding that the baseball legend comes off as an average guy.

"He's really humble in person," said the manager of a coin-op laundromat a few storefronts down the street, preferring to remain anonymous. "People around here respect him a lot. And not just because he's a baseball star."

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