The boarded up Iglesia Episcopal San Francisco, or Episcopal Church...

The boarded up Iglesia Episcopal San Francisco, or Episcopal Church of St. Francis, in Riverhead will be repaired rather than demolished. The parish, which serves a growing community of Latino immigrants and farmworkers, is shown on Friday. Credit: Elizabeth Sagarin

Just before Easter last year, Episcopal Church officials were forced to shut down and board up a church in Riverhead that was serving a growing population of Latinos, including migrant farmworkers.

The 153-year-old building on Roanoke Avenue had serious structural problems and was no longer safe to use, said Bishop Lawrence Provenzano, head of the Episcopal Diocese of Long Island. With slabs of plywood nailed across doors and windows, “It looked horrible,” he said. “It looked like the death of a parish.”

But a year later, as Easter Sunday arrives, the parish is experiencing its own resurrection. Instead of being forced to tear down the building and erect a new one — at a cost of millions — officials have found they will be able to renovate it for far less.

“It’s clearly a resurrection story,” Provenzano said. “All indications were that we were going to have to tear the place down. As it turns out, we can restore the building without spending a tremendous fortune … and allow a worship space to be reopened for a fast-growing congregation.”

The church community will be celebrating the good news that has risen in Riverhead as thousands of the faithful across Long Island mark Easter Sunday — the holiest day of the year for Christians. Easter is the culmination of Holy Week, when 2,000 years ago, Jesus was condemned to death and crucified on what today is known as Good Friday. Three days later, the faithful believe, Jesus rose from the dead.

The rebuilding of the church is expected to start in April, with a reopening planned for some time during the summer. It should cost the diocese about $300,000. Both the church and the adjoining parish hall will be refurbished.

The Rev. Gerardo Romo-Garcia, who heads the parish, said members are thrilled they will be returning to their church after spending months celebrating Mass in the rented cafeteria of a local school.

“Our joy is really great now that we know we will get our place back,” Romo said, adding “it was a very busy place.” He also heads the diocese’s Latino outreach on the East End. The Riverhead church's congregation numbers about 200 people.

Church workers in the parish had feared the building might have to be demolished.

The parish, now known as Iglesia Episcopal San Francisco, or Episcopal Church of St. Francis, hosts religious activities such as Masses as well as social outreach programs that range from ESL classes to women’s empowerment to assisting farmworkers and other immigrants to get fair wages, among other things.

Some of the farmworkers from Mexico and Central America are learning to read and write in English and Spanish at the parish, said Maria del Mar Piedrabuena, a coordinator at Rural & Migrant Ministry. The nonprofit group runs many of the programs at the church.

When it shut down last March, “It was like a shock because it was pretty much happening in two days,” she said. “For a while, we were scrambling to see how we could accommodate our members.”

For the past year, they have operated out of a small space in the church rectory, which remained open. It is not nearly large enough to handle some of their programs, which attract up to 80 people, she said.

At times, they have resorted to putting up vinyl tents in the parking lot so some programs could go on, she said.

When the church reopens, it will not be the first rebirth for the parish, which after decades of ministry as Grace Episcopal Church, shut down in 2017 because of declining membership.

Rural & Migrant Ministry, an independent group, moved into the parish later that year under an arrangement with the diocese. Then, in 2020, Romo shifted the location of religious services from Mattituck to the larger Riverhead church as the number of congregants grew.

The church had been thriving until the shutdown last year. Still, organizers soldiered on to keep the work alive while hoping for a space in which to function again.

“It was born from the ashes after being completely closed down,” Piedrabuena said. “We are very happy because once again we will be able to have our center fully running.”

Just before Easter last year, Episcopal Church officials were forced to shut down and board up a church in Riverhead that was serving a growing population of Latinos, including migrant farmworkers.

The 153-year-old building on Roanoke Avenue had serious structural problems and was no longer safe to use, said Bishop Lawrence Provenzano, head of the Episcopal Diocese of Long Island. With slabs of plywood nailed across doors and windows, “It looked horrible,” he said. “It looked like the death of a parish.”

But a year later, as Easter Sunday arrives, the parish is experiencing its own resurrection. Instead of being forced to tear down the building and erect a new one — at a cost of millions — officials have found they will be able to renovate it for far less.

“It’s clearly a resurrection story,” Provenzano said. “All indications were that we were going to have to tear the place down. As it turns out, we can restore the building without spending a tremendous fortune … and allow a worship space to be reopened for a fast-growing congregation.”

The church community will be celebrating the good news that has risen in Riverhead as thousands of the faithful across Long Island mark Easter Sunday — the holiest day of the year for Christians. Easter is the culmination of Holy Week, when 2,000 years ago, Jesus was condemned to death and crucified on what today is known as Good Friday. Three days later, the faithful believe, Jesus rose from the dead.

The rebuilding of the church is expected to start in April, with a reopening planned for some time during the summer. It should cost the diocese about $300,000. Both the church and the adjoining parish hall will be refurbished.

Members thrilled to be returning

The Rev. Gerardo Romo-Garcia, who heads the parish, said members are thrilled they will be returning to their church after spending months celebrating Mass in the rented cafeteria of a local school.

“Our joy is really great now that we know we will get our place back,” Romo said, adding “it was a very busy place.” He also heads the diocese’s Latino outreach on the East End. The Riverhead church's congregation numbers about 200 people.

Church workers in the parish had feared the building might have to be demolished.

The parish, now known as Iglesia Episcopal San Francisco, or Episcopal Church of St. Francis, hosts religious activities such as Masses as well as social outreach programs that range from ESL classes to women’s empowerment to assisting farmworkers and other immigrants to get fair wages, among other things.

Some of the farmworkers from Mexico and Central America are learning to read and write in English and Spanish at the parish, said Maria del Mar Piedrabuena, a coordinator at Rural & Migrant Ministry. The nonprofit group runs many of the programs at the church.

When it shut down last March, “It was like a shock because it was pretty much happening in two days,” she said. “For a while, we were scrambling to see how we could accommodate our members.”

For the past year, they have operated out of a small space in the church rectory, which remained open. It is not nearly large enough to handle some of their programs, which attract up to 80 people, she said.

At times, they have resorted to putting up vinyl tents in the parking lot so some programs could go on, she said.

A second rebirth for church

When the church reopens, it will not be the first rebirth for the parish, which after decades of ministry as Grace Episcopal Church, shut down in 2017 because of declining membership.

Rural & Migrant Ministry, an independent group, moved into the parish later that year under an arrangement with the diocese. Then, in 2020, Romo shifted the location of religious services from Mattituck to the larger Riverhead church as the number of congregants grew.

The church had been thriving until the shutdown last year. Still, organizers soldiered on to keep the work alive while hoping for a space in which to function again.

“It was born from the ashes after being completely closed down,” Piedrabuena said. “We are very happy because once again we will be able to have our center fully running.”

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