It was a time for celebrating the improbable in West Baltimore's Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood yesterday as an old convent building -- refurbished after two decades of neglect -- became the new home of a multiracial Presbyterian church and outreach program.
Fifteen months ago, the New Song Community Church bought the dilapidated, four-story brick building at 1385 N. Gilmor St., which the Rev. Mark R. Gornik dreamed of putting to new use through donations and "sweat equity."
"I thought they were crazy," said Ella Johnson, executive director of the Sandtown-Winchester Improvement Association, echoing the sentiments of many community residents. "It shows us that anything you can believe, you can achieve. It's not the obstacles. It's what you do with the obstacles."
With thousands of hours in labor donated by the pastor, church members and community volunteers, the building -- formerly boarded up and a home to transient squatters -- has been largely restored.
Funding for the renovation was provided by the Abell Foundation, Save the Children Foundation, the Patella Fund and several churches and individuals, with technical assistance donated by the Neighborhood Design Center and legal help from the Community Law Center.
The church outreach program will offer legal aid, health care and other community services.
"Hopefully, this is a turn in the right direction, a sign of change and hope," said Mr. Gornik, who helped found the multiracial church three years ago, holding services in his living room. "Rather than tearing something down and building over it, we restored it."
Sunlight bathed the front steps of the New Song Community Church and Outreach Center as more than 300 people -- including Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, D-Md., Sen. Daniel R. Coats, R-Ind., and U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Jack F. Kemp -- stood together against the chill winds, much as the church and community had stood in partnership to make the day possible.
"This is a sign that God is going to stay in Sandtown for a long time," said parishioner Natalie Towles, who served as mistress of ceremonies. "We struggled in prayer, we struggled physically, and we struggled mentally."
"Mark had a vision, and I helped him draw it up," said Tom Gamper, project architect. "There were armies and armies of volunteers. I was extremely happy to see that support. Mark and the church had a real rapport with the community."
Community residents, including some of the 300 who volunteered their labor to help renovate the church, also spoke proudly of the building many of them call "the mansion."
"I think it's remarkable," said Herman Gassaway, a community resident for all of his 69 years. "It brings out something. I remember when it was a convent. It's good to see something happen in the community. We were so far down. We've come a long way."
The federal, state and local officials who attended the ceremonies pointed out that the renovation of the church was just one of several encouraging signs in the community, which has also seen the federally funded renovation of the Gilmor Homes public housing complex across the street.
"It gives hope where there was despair," said Mr. Kemp. "It got a lot of black folks and white folks working together representing the great plurality that this nation was built on. It's another great step in the refurbishing of the neighborhood."
Mayor Schmoke said the recent developments in Sandtown-Winchester show that the local and federal governments are working with residents to "rebuild the walls of this community. We are witnessing the rebirth of a community."