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Closed Johnstown churches’ statues headline redevelopment

JOHNSTOWN (AP) — A century-old, cast iron statue of the Virgin Mary that once provided inspiration to Roman Catholic worshipers at Immaculate Conception Church now stands as the artistic and spiritual centerpiece of the newly christened Piazza Maria, just a few blocks away from her former home in Johnstown’s Cambria City neighborhood.

It was installed two weeks ago by Stella Property Development & Event Production, a company owned by Steven Biter and Chad Pysher, who are working to repurpose elements of the community’s ethnic and religious history in modern ways.

On the other side of Chestnut Street, hand-carved stone statues of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and St. Columba – once found at what was formerly St. Columba Church — are on display outside of Brigid’s Cross, a religious and spiritual store opened by Stella in late June.

Resurrection Catholic Church, a parish formed when the Roman Catholic Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown merged the neighborhood churches — Immaculate Conception, SS. Casimir & Emerich, St. Columba, St. Rochus and St. Stephen — is visible from the site. Casimir Cultural Center, which Pysher and Biter plan to officially open later this year in the former SS. Casimir and Emerich Church, is nearby, as is the ever-evolving Shrine and Garden of Our Lady of Mariapocs.

And at the heart of it all is Mary.

“Her being so central to a lot of the religious cultural life here, bringing her back to the center of the neighborhood – it means a lot,” Biter said. “It certainly means a lot to us. I know it means a lot to the people that were members down here and worshiped down here, too.”

Biter and Pysher plan to clean and illuminate the statue and adorn the ground around her with flowers.

“Sometimes she’s referred to as ‘the new Eve,’ ‘the new beginning,'” Pysher said. “It’s pretty symbolic.”

Piazza Maria is part of Emerich Place, where there is also an empty building and another structure that is home to Cambria City Flowers, a business Biter and Pysher recently relocated from what is now Brigid’s Cross. The statues at the two locations — Mary, Jesus and St. Columba — were gifted to Stella by Resurrection parish.

“The three statues are part of the history of Cambria City,” said Tony DeGol, communications secretary for the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown. “Rather than keep them in storage, the pastor of Resurrection parish (Rev. George Gulash) made a wise and forward-thinking decision to gift them so that they can be preserved and proudly displayed in the community for all to appreciate.

“We have no doubt that in their new locations, the beloved statues will continue to serve as a source of beauty and inspiration for parishioners, residents and everyone who visits Cambria City.”

Downtime during the COVID-19 pandemic provided Pysher and Biter the opportunity to reassess their plans for the properties. They moved the flower shop, developed Brigid’s Cross and tweaked their SundayMarket@CambriaCity gatherings that are now held in the piazza.

“I think last year gave us the time – without the events – to really just step back and rethink and relook at everything we were doing and take the time to really, truly make this all connect how we’ve been wanting it to and how we’ve seen it,” Pysher said. “It’s not just about us having all these properties. There is a true connection as a company for Stella that all of it is together. They all coordinate with each other.”

They also worked on the Shrine and Garden of Our Lady of Mariapocs, where people come to reflect, light candles, pray and spend some time in peace with themselves or others.

Biter constructed a secondary shrine to the Infant Jesus of Prague from random items, such as bricks from SS. Casimir and Emerich, crystals from the Badlands and pieces of neighborhood buildings and alleys.

“It’s all done from garbage or things that were laying around. … Literally, everything in here was garbage that we just stacked together,” Biter said.

Biter sees the shrine as being symbolic of the neighborhood and their effort to repurpose the past.

“Everything in Cambria City, it seems, is made up from other parts,” Biter said. “It all used to be something else. Everything we’ve done especially is made of something else. The cultural center is made from an old church. The new flower shop is made of buildings that used to be other things.

“Spiritually, this whole shrine, a lot of people that find solace here can’t find solace anywhere else. They feel like they don’t have a home. So coming here gives them purpose. It gives them a place to be. … The side shrine, a few people take it in. I think it’s especially those people that don’t quite have a place to fit in. They’re made of broken pieces, so this really speaks to them.”

A grand unveiling of the Casimir Cultural Center is expected to happen soon.

Pysher and Biter took ownership of the former church in 2015. It has been open to the public a few times. The bells have been rung on special occasions. Work has been done on the exterior and interior. A silver-and-gold-colored statue of St. Casimir, which was once located high up on the front of the building, is now on ground level for passersby to view. The ceilings are being repaired and beautified.

Some plans for the property have changed; the idea of putting a Carpatho-Rusyn restaurant called Pivo in the basement has not been eliminated, but has been de-prioritized.

“Everyone is very anxious for us to get started here,” Pysher said. “Trust me, no one is more anxious than we are. We’ve put a lot of time into this. We were ready to go for 2020 (before the pandemic hit). We had a schedule of events. and it just wasn’t meant to be. You know, that’s okay.”

Pysher said to give the church and statues back to the people “is really a gift to us.”

“We are honored by it,” Pysher said. “Yes, they’re our property now, but we do feel like we’re stewards of them, too. These things are very much significant to the history here. It is really like a museum.”

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Online:

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Copyright 2021 The Associated Press.

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