Though the New York Yankees will lose Mariano Rivera at the end of the 2013 season, New Rochelle hopes they'll be getting more of him.
Rivera's upcoming retirement has New Rochelle looking forward to seeing more of the community-minded all-time Yankees great, who together with his wife Clara is wrapping up the renovation of a rotting historic church building that will soon become home base for their Pentecostal congregation.
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The Sandman and Clara Rivera, senior pastor of Refuge of Hope, are spending millions to save North Avenue Presbyterian Church, a 1902 Gothic Revival structure that fell on very hard times. Once their rehabilitation of the property is complete, the city will sell it to them for a dollar.
"We're excited to have Mariano as an active member of our community along with his family," said Mayor Noam Bramson. "And we're also delighted that a much-beloved historic building is being restored."
In 2011, the player many consider baseball's greatest closer signed the licensing agreement for the church building. Since then, Rivera and his wife have pumped "well over $2 million" into the project, said City Manager Chuck Strome III.
"It was sort of rotting away," Strome explained. "There were no pews left. The doors were destroyed. It needed everything. It was basically a shell ... he was originally hoping to open it before spring training but now it looks like late spring, early summer."
Given the pace of the work, Rivera has become a familiar presence in New Rochelle, where he once lived.
"He's around all the time. He's very much involved with the project," Strome said. "And he's willing to deal with me, even though I'm a Mets fan."
According to the Refuge of Hope website, the couple, who now live in Harrison, started their church at their home in 2009 with a mission to "revitalize the community through projects and special programs delivered with a genuine demonstration of God's love."
The couple could not be reached for comment Saturday, their renovation efforts have already touched people in New Rochelle.
"It's not going to be just a house of worship but it will also be a community anchor because he feels very strong about community," said city historian Barbara Davis.
Their new flagship building, with a facade that is part rough-cut stone with Tudor-style timber-and-stucco features, was once the largest Protestant church in Westchester with a congregation 1,000 strong, Davis added. It eventually fell into the city's hands and in the 1990s, a police station and courthouse were built on one end of the site. At one point, the building was eligible to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places, but no one ever followed through, she said.
The general contractor on the project is Rivera's brother Joe Rivera, said Allan Cohen, 53, who owns AJ's Burgers down the block from the church. Already, he has gotten a sense of just how serious the Rivera family is about outreach. Last fall, he went to the construction site and asked Joe Rivera about getting their support to host a Thanksgiving dinner for locals in need.
The result was a benefit that fed 120 people an all-the-trimmings dinner in two shifts at the restaurant, Cohen explained.
He said that the Riveras organized take-home goody bags for each family that included a whole turkey and other food. "Mariano and his wife Clara were there all through it. They stayed and ate with their kids," Cohen said.
Once during the planning of the event, he said, Rivera arrived first but went back out to meet his wife and strolled back into the restaurant with her, walking hand in hand.
The mayor said he has also seen the Riveras in action. Just a few weeks ago, they were all at a benefit for Hope Community Services on Washington Avenue, which runs a soup kitchen, food pantry and helps low-income residents with nutritional needs.
"He made it very clear. It's not just him on a personal basis, but he and his church community plan to be active in supporting New Rochelle," said Bramson.
The church is on a block with several "For Sale" signs on storefronts in what Bramson tactfully described as a "transition" area between Iona College and the City Hall area to the south.
The Riveras' new outpost "will be a good addition to the block," added Stome. Since the project is not a business, the church's opening might not have a major economic development impact, Strome said. "But hopefully it will encourage some of the other property owners to make improvements on their properties."