- Associated Press - Saturday, September 19, 2015

NORWOOD, Ohio (AP) - He wanders into the church sanctuary, seeking shelter.

Prisms of light shine down from the 15-foot-tall stained glass windows depicting St. Elizabeth of Hungary. There she is sheltering children on one pane. There she is feeding the hungry on the other.

The man, holding all his worldly goods, doesn’t mind the peeling paint, doesn’t notice the church has no pews nor that its pastor is not Catholic.

He only wonders if there is a bed here. Wonders if the man in the jeans and button-down shirt might be able to help him.

Of course, Joshua Stoxen tells him.

This is what Vineyard Central does inside St. Elizabeth Church, which was built 112 years ago at the corner of Mills and Carter avenues with 71 tons of iron and $60,000.

It is what the church and its small congregation are striving to continue to do despite what seems to be overwhelming financial odds.

St. Elizabeth’s, built in the Italian renaissance style of a Byzantine basilica with 60-foot domed ceilings and jaw-dropping stained glass imported from Germany and awe-inspiring acoustics, is for sale for $149,900. It’s the same price Vineyard paid when it bought the church from the Archdiocese of Cincinnati in 1995, Stoxen says.

Insurance paid for Vineyard Central to fix the slate roof and repair its towers at a combined price tag of about $220,000.

But don’t be mistaken, it will take a buyer upwards of $1 million to fix the plaster and peeling paint, repair the stained glass, install a new heating and cooling system and maybe even build a bathroom closer to the sanctuary.

None of that gives Stoxen, Vineyard’s pastor, pause.

“This is a living metaphor of what we hope to do in the neighborhood.”

The 34-year-old with the quick smile and calm demeanor became pastor of the Protestant congregation in February 2012. He, like the majority of the church’s members live in Norwood and focus their work here. It was that mission to build a community that brought Stoxen here without a job.

Vineyard Central is part of Vineyard USA and is not part of Vineyard Cincinnati or Vineyard Community Church.

“We want to be a part of the transforming work of God in our neighborhood and believe the church still has a central role to play in that work,” reads the church’s mission statement. “We also believe that this work best happens when God’s people enmesh themselves in a particular place with a particular people, which is why many of us are committed to living in the neighborhood. We want to learn from those who have lived here a lot longer than us, people who often practice the hospitality we preach much better than we do.”

That was exactly the pillars on which St. Elizabeth’s was founded in 1884 and helped it to grow to thousands of members, according to a church history written to commemorate its 100th anniversary. The church was founded before Norwood was incorporated. It grew as the city grew, eventually opening a school and convent.

It morphed as the Catholic Church changed. The adoption of Vatican II dictated that much of the church’s grandeur was removed: Religious statues were pulled out; the high and side altars were banished then replaced with a table that still remains; the niches were plastered over.

Church membership waned as Norwood’s growth stalled and then declined.

It was, in part, that history that drew church founder Dave Nixon to St. Elizabeth’s, his mother Leslie Nixon said during a recent Sunday service at the church.

“This is the place Dave said God wanted (him) to be,” said Nixon, who many still consider the grandmother of Vineyard Central.

Jeremy Eyre was one of Vineyard’s first members. He remains its event coordinator and plays guitar with several members during Sunday services.

“When I came here, it just felt like coming home,” Eyre said after the church’s celebration services on Aug. 30. “Then it was a community house where people were living together and doing life together. There was a passion to do good work.”

That passion is what keeps him coming back.

Sandra Kelley, left, and Krystal Dawson bridge the aisle, holding hands during the Lord’s Prayer part of Vineyard Central services at the old St. Elizabeth Church in Norwood.

A chalkboard outside the church welcomes passersby to join the church’s annual celebration services on this last Sunday of August. It invites anyone to come, to be baptized, to pray with them. A few wander in from the neighborhood, are greeted and encouraged to stay.

There is no pretense or formality to the services. But there is joy, the laughter of children and the singing of Scripture.

The sanctuary is filled with several rows of chairs occupied with as many children as adults.

The homeless man is not one of them on this day.

Newlyweds Kara and Evan Sheldon joined the church after they first chose it for their October wedding and reception, Kara says.

“The building brought us here,” she said. “We are both artists and it just felt right. Our families come from different religious beliefs and this felt comfortable. This felt sacred.”

Stoxen, in his new member litany, reminded the parishioners of the importance of St. Elizabeth.

“We wanted to put a stake in the ground and be part of God, healing the wounds of abandonment in this place,” says Stoxen.

Surrounded by expansive rose windows, one filled with male saints, the other with female saints, several members stand and raise their hands upward.

Stoxen continues: “St. Elizabeth is at the epicenter of that mission and represents both the wound and the good news of redemption that is possible through the resurrection power of Jesus.”

Mark Bruner then led the congregation outside, toward a corrugated steel trough filled with water. It was here, surrounded by the congregation that he baptized his 8-year-old son Ethan.

“It was a proud moment,” he says as a wet Ethan shivered a bit, warmed quickly by parishioner’s hugs. “I am proud of him. Proud that he was brave enough to do this.”

A cross from Vineyard Central stands in front of the altar of the old St. Elizabeth Church in Norwood.

Vineyard Central is not, and likely never will be, Angela Pancella’s religious home. She is a lifelong Catholic who worships elsewhere, but it is clear St. Elizabeth’s is a sacred place for her. And she believes in the underpinnings of Vineyard’s work.

She acts as a kind of unofficial Catholic historian of the building.

“There are a strong number of women in this church,” she says, describing the religious history of those two rose windows and the meaning of the stained glass in two of the ceiling domes. The larger of the two domes has an eye in the center of a triangle.

“It’s the eye of God, a symbol of his omniscience, or knowledge of everything. The eye is in a triangle, symbolizing the three persons of the trinity, and the triangle is in circle to symbolize the unity of the trinity.”

She says she can’t imagine the church being sold to a wanna-be brewery owner or a restaurateur. She visibly shudders at the mention of that possibility.

Stoxen says that will not happen. He says church elders are looking for a buyer who will allow Vineyard to continue to worship inside the church. He says he anticipates events will continue in the space, which has also been used as a visual backdrop for photographers and an acoustical gift to musicians.

He and Pancella hope, though, that the church can become a kind of centralized place for service providers spread across Norwood. Imagine, they say, that the homeless man who walked through their doors could find a bed here, could get a hot meal, start job training and maybe even find a stable job.

And then, come Sunday, he might worship with them.

“That is the ideal … to create a sustainable use for doing our work … to become a viable social enterprise. For doing the work that needs to be done,” Stoxen says.

They have given themselves a December deadline.

And if there are no buyers, or not the right buyers?

“We will continue to do the best we can,” Stoxen says. “We will do as we have.”

And, he says, he hopes that means keeping the door open.

So the needy can wander in.

And grace can flood out.

___

Information from: The Cincinnati Enquirer, http://www.enquirer.com

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