Astoria church closes after 88 yrs. of worship

By Nathan Duke

The Rev. Don Olinger will deliver his final sermon Sunday at the Presbyterian Church of Astoria's 86-year-old site on 33rd Street before the building is demolished to make way for senior housing, but the congregation will reconvene in a room at the new development when it opens in two years.

The demolition follows an often-contentious battle to determine the church's fate, which began six years ago when Olinger, who has served as minister at the church for 14 years, became increasingly aware of the building's decline.

"The electrical systems, the plumbing and the heating systems hadn't been replaced since the church opened in 1922 and there was no insulation, so summers would be extremely hot and winters would be an ice chest," said Olinger, who is legally blind.

He said the church's heating oil bill went from $25,000 per year to $36,000 per year between 2006 and 2007.

In 2002, the church's congregation began to explore options to sell the building, leading to what Olinger called an "acrimonious" battle between congregants who agreed with a potential sale and those who did not.

Presbyterian congregations are modeled after democracies and, in April 2006, churchgoers narrowly voted to sell the building to a developer who would use the property to improve the community.

Olinger said a majority of the congregants who opposed selling the property have since dropped out of the congregation.

The Hellenic-American Neighborhood Action Committee purchased the building at 31-30 33rd St. for $4.25 million and is in the process of developing a 93-unit senior housing development, which will provide units for low-income elderly residents and include seven units for seniors with physical disabilities.

The project will cost more than $25 million and is expected to open in 2010, HANAC Vice President John Kaiteris said.

The development will include space for the Presbyterian congregation to resume its worship services. Olinger said the church is working with the state's Historical Preservation Office to salvage parts of the building's sanctuary.

In the meantime, the church is searching for an interim locale and is currently negotiating to use a site near Crescent Street and 23rd Avenue in Astoria, Olinger said.

The church's congregation, which peaked in the 1950s with more than 1,200 members, currently includes an estimated 40 attendees who reflect the neighborhood's diversity. Olinger said congregants hail from Japan, Korea, the Philippines, India, Portugal, Italy, Brazil, Guyana, Trinidad and Nigeria.

He said the building's imminent demise ends a long chapter in the church's history, but also ushers in a new era for the house of worship, a subject he will touch on in his final sermon this weekend.

"I spoke with community leaders and we all agreed that affordable senior housing is at such a premium," he said. "It's at least a three-year wait if someone applied for it today. And we'll still be the same congregation, just in a new setting."

Reach reporter Nathan Duke by e-mail at news@timesledger.com or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 156.

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