Menard

Stacy Menard, a member of the church council at First Congregational Church on Cleveland Avenue in the Falls, considers the historic building more like home.

Stacy Menard gets emotional talking about First Congregational Church.

Those who know the full history of the building can understand why.

The church, located at 822 Cleveland Ave., just off north Main Street in the north end of Niagara Falls, traces its roots back to 1855.

A group of the church’s first members set the building’s cornerstone two years before the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision of 1857, which held that all Blacks — both slaves and free — could not be considered citizens under the U.S. Constitution.

Historians say abolitionist Frederick Douglass gave a speech inside the building during a trip to Niagara Falls in 1856.

For nearly 170 years now, the church has marked the time in the city, staying open through the Great Depression, two world wars, the terms of 30 U.S. presidents and, more recently, a global pandemic.

For Menard, a 47-year-old Falls native who lives in the Town of Wheatfield, the church is more than an historic building.

She describes it as “home.

The place where she was baptized like her mother and grandmother before her.

The place she still comes to find peace.

“There’s a lot of times that I come and it’s quiet and you can feel the presence of God. This is literally my sanctuary,” she said.

The church’s congregation currently includes nine members, including Menard and her parents.

For the small but dedicated group, maintaining the historic structure amid rising costs has been a struggle.

The decades-long decline along nearby Main Street hasn’t helped.

Thieves and vandals have targeted the church more often in recent years, according to Menard.

They’ve stolen door knobs, tea kettle and other “everyday” items.

One robber walked away with something much more valuable — a communion set gifted to church members in 1856.

Menard said there have been times when church leaders arrived at the building to find trespassers sleeping inside.

All this activity has happened within a two-minute walk to the city’s Public Safety Complex on Main Street.

“If I come here to clean and I come in by myself, I have 911 on my phone before I come into the building so that if I come into the building and there’s somebody here, I can just press the button,” Menard said.

Times have been tough, but there’s renewed reason for hope.

Under an arrangement with Niagara University, the basement at First Congregational Church is in line for a serious upgrade.

Under the deal, NU plans to buy the building and spend $2.5 million, including $1.1 million in state funding, to renovate the lower floor for use as an education and community outreach hub.

Church members will retain use of the sanctuary space for worship services, music events and other activities.

Menard hopes the partnership will allow the congregation to tap into the LBGTQ+ community on NU’s campus. As a free and open church, First Congregational accepts all members regardless of their gender and sexual identity.

While Menard believes her congregation still has a role to play in rebuilding the city’s north end, the disappointing nature of the City of Niagara Falls keeps her grounded.

Like a lot of Falls resident, Menard can quickly rattle off a short list of Falls failures: Robert Moses and his parkway, E. Dent Lackey’s Urban Renewal, the gaping hole next to the former Occidental Chemical Corp. headquarters building that was supposed to be filled by an underground aquarium called AquaFalls.

She’s hoping the new deal with NU will be good for the church. She’s hoping some good will eventually come out of plans to revitalize Main Street and the city as a whole.

She’s remains “cautiously optimistic” on both fronts.

“You hope for the best and expect the worst.”

That’s practically a city motto around here.

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