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Historic East Village Church Seeks Donor to Ramp Up Disability Access

By Serena Solomon | March 12, 2013 4:27pm

EAST VILLAGE — The second oldest church in Manhattan, St. Mark's Church in-the-Bowery, is angling for a private donor to help build a permanent ramp for access for the disabled into its historic building.

The house of worship, at East 10th Street and Second Avenue, which became a city landmark in 1966, had postponed plans for a permanent entrance ramp because it was too costly to add one under landmark restrictions at a time when the congregation was shrinking. It instead relied on portable wooden ramps to give access to elderly congregants and those in wheel chairs.

However, the church, which was consecrated in 1799, has been growing recently, leading it to redouble its plans for a permanent ramp.

"We want to be a church that is truly welcoming to all people," said Rev. Winnie Varghese. "As a church we are going out of our way to welcome people and this is one of those ways."

When Varghese took the helm at St. Mark's four years ago, after a stint ministering to students at Columbia University, the church had dwindled to about 40 members and the building's esthetics had slipped too, according to Varghese.

Now the church is back to about 100 worshipers each Sunday with about 300 members. 

"At a time when the mainline [churches] are shrinking we have a different story," said Varghese. "We want to do something visible so people know that the church is back."

Representatives from St. Mark's will appear before the Landmarks Preservation Commission on April 9 with a bundled deal — to restore the church's portico while adding the ramp.

The church's plan is to build a concrete incline that matches the building's facade, rather than the wooden ramp that church staff and volunteers currently have to lift in and out of position in front of the building each time someone in a wheelchair needs access, said Varghese.

The total cost for the project is a little under half a million dollars, she added.

"We don't have the money in hand to do the disability aspect," she said.

St. Mark's has already been awarded $150,000 in grants and it is applying for more as well as a potential loan from the archdiocese.

And there is always the hopeful miracle of a private donor.

"If people are not comfortable giving to the church they can give to this project specifically," said Varghese, adding that the funds to build the disability access ramp are being kept in a separate bank account.

Varghese said the ramp will allow the church to continue its mission not only as a historic place for worship, but also as a haven for the arts.

"Since the 1900 we have had priests that are very dedicated to art, to dance, to theater," said Varghese.

In the early 1900s the reverend at the time Dr. W. Norman Guthrie had the "controversial" idea that "arts were a tool for engaging the modern person's spirituality," according to the church's website.

"It is an iconic site in our neighborhood, but what it has been known for this last generation is art," she said.