The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

Focus on the Arts

March 25, 2012

'Cultural center' | Family gives closed church building new purpose

Blazing a new trail is never easy, but members of the Mical family are innovators when it comes to converting a dormant Cambria City church into a cultural center.

While repurposing a church isn’t new, it took a leap of faith for the Cambria City natives to take the plunge.

Dennis and Janet Mical of Westmont had a vision and wanted to give something back to the neighborhood where they grew up, and as a bonus, preserve the architecture of a historical structure.

With the influence of the artistic and musical backgrounds of Janet’s sons, Adam and T.K. Mundok, a community arts center seemed to be an opportune solution.

Established VOMA

With the fate of the former St. George Serbian Orthodox property uncertain, the Micals researched and decided to make the investment and established a nonprofit organization, Venue of Merging Arts (VOMA), giving the building new purpose.

VOMA is the first organization to successfully repurpose one of the closed historic church structures left vacant in the National Historic District of Cambria City in Johnstown.

The arts center made its public debut in 2009 with exhibits, tours, food and a series of Cambria City Ethnic Festival performances at the 305 Chestnut St. location.

Ironically, that was the same year the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese closed the neighborhood’s historic Roman Catholic churches.

With a renewed focus on the future of transforming the former SS. Casimir & Emerich, St. Columba and Immaculate Conception churches, the Mical family sees their project as an example of what can be done.

Served Lebanese Christians

The VOMA building was constructed in 1911 as St. Mary Syrian Orthodox Church. It served the Lebanese Christian community until 1971, when a new congregation that split from St. Petka Serbian Orthodox Church in Woodvale acquired it.

In 1977, the church was renamed St. George Serbian Orthodox Church.

No longer home to an active parish, the church building was acquired by the Micals.

“We do feel a little like pioneers now that the steeples project has begun to redevelop three other church properties,” said Dennis Mical, who is a certified public accountant and works in Pittsburgh.

“We are supporters of the steeples project and look forward to working with them to convert the neighborhood we love into the main cultural district in the city.”

‘The structure is sound’

VOMA’s first order of business was to create a board of directors and start cleaning the church.

“Basically, the structure is sound,” Dennis Mical said.

“The main issue was the west side of the roof, where shingles were missing and more were coming off.”

With the help of a $2,500 grant from the Community Foundation for the Alleghenies, fundraising, donations and in-kind construction, the group was able to replace the shingles on one side of the building.

Other immediate issues included repairing the furnace and water lines in the former adjoining parsonage, Dennis Mical said.

More upgrades were completed in the basement, which now houses Club VOMA.

The work included adding a new ceiling, booths in the VIP section, a bar area, a kitchen and a small stage, giving the room an intimate coffeehouse appeal.

Helping hands

“Much of the work done in the club was donated by Habitat for Humanity,” Mical said.

“We are not handicap accessible as yet, but have devised a ramp system to accommodate a wheelchair.”

The café tables and cushioned chairs were obtained from the Lamplighter Restaurant in Murrysville, Westmoreland County.

“We were able to negotiate a price of $600 for the lot,” Mical said.

“Buying only one of those tables new would probably cost over $200.”

A rear exit is being completed, which will allow seating capacity to increase.

One of the most successful parts of the programming at VOMA is Teen Night, which features an open-mic segment and live bands.

It is held at 7:30 p.m. on the first Friday of each month with a $5 cover charge.

“Adam wants this to be an evening where youngsters can showcase their talents by presenting original material along with some covers of music,” Janet Mical said.

Performance area

The former sanctuary has been converted to a performance area and an art gallery with movable display walls.

The choir loft serves as a music pit for bands during theatrical performances.

Janet Mical said the church was purchased with the intent of coaxing her sons back to the East Coast.

VOMA executive director Adam Mundok was working as a musician in Los Angeles and T.K. Mundok ran an art gallery in San Francisco.

“They each have strong backgrounds in the arts,” Janet Mical said. “I never thought they would move back, but they have a belief in the community.”

Complements area

By focusing on regional and contemporary art, VOMA is a nice complement to nearby Bottle Works Ethnic Arts Center.

VOMA is a play off of the acronym MOMA, the Museum of Modern Art.

“It was something T.K. suggested, and we all liked it because it is a catchy word that’s easy to say, memorable, and summarizes our mission very concisely in its translation – that we are a venue for original artists of all genres,” Adam Mundok said.

It’s a reality

What once was only a vision is now becoming a reality.

“Cambria City has evolved into Johnstown’s Arts and Cultural District with museums, arts centers, galleries and a bed and breakfast occupying its historic buildings and one of its historic churches,” said Karen Mesaros, VOMA director of development and marketing.

“In conjunction with our mission statement, VOMA is a place where various forms of artistic expression can merge together to promote, educate, entertain and involve the community in the arts.”

Through long hours of sweat equity and with the help of family and friends, the property has been successfully transitioned into a vibrant community center with a focus on original art and entertainment.

‘Biggest challenge’

“What we and others will find as the biggest challenge is getting people to realize that these buildings are no longer churches,” Janet Mical said.

“To pave the way for repurposing the building, the church was desanctified by the bishop and the beloved icons were removed.”

Dennis Mical put the icons in storage and hopes another Orthodox church would want  them.

VOMA will be the site of low-cost classes in graphic design, painting, computer-based art, acting and guitar.

Classes would have a 50-person capacity.

In May, Adam Mundok hopes to merge the arts by having a jam.

The event will start with two blank canvases, and after any artist who attends contributes his or her inspiration, there will be two original collaborative pieces of artwork.

 

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