The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

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February 22, 2013

St. Benedict expanding with shop across street

JOHNSTOWN — For years, leaders at St. Benedict Church have had plenty of ideas for their surrounding campus.

But most of those plans required space – ­a luxury the church and its Catholic school have little of on their Geistown lot.

That has changed in recent months. The acquisition of more than 4 acres across the street will add a Catholic gift shop, church parking and perhaps more, said the Rev. David S. Peles, St. Benedict pastor.

“This all started to address our need for parking,” said Peles, noting that church events often cram parking lots.

“We had to wait for Mass to end before we could start any other event at the church.”

In the fall, the church acquired the former Niessner’s flower shop and several acres behind it.

The shop – home to Geistown family florists for decades – has been remodeled into what will be one of only two Catholic gift shops in the Altoona-Johnstown diocese, said St. Benedict Church member Jim Roccio, who will serve as the shop’s volunteer manager.  

“There used to be several like this but they’ve all closed,” Roccio said, noting one remains in Loretto.

The store will open in March.

Volunteers were stocking shelves this week, adding cards, books and other items.

The small shop offers religious DVDs, statues, gift bags and hundreds of other items. An Irish section contains Celtic crosses, Irish angel pieces and jewelry.

Roccio said a dozen volunteers will keep the store running five days a week once it’s open.

Volunteers spent time remodeling, adding color to the former flower shop while leaving its generations-old barn wood exposed inside.

“We’ve had a lot of interest in the store,” said Peles, noting local residents have asked when it will open.  “We’ll see how it goes.”

Efforts will turn to developing permanent parking behind the shop.

The old greenhouse and other buildings have been leveled for the work.

Peles said the church is working with Geistown on plans to pave the lot and upgrade the traffic signal at the intersection to improve safety for those who park there and would need to cross the street.

Roccio expects that new digital lights will direct church guests when to cross the street, and Peles said a crossing guard will remain on hand during evening church events.

The church and borough have received a PennDOT grant to upgrade the signal.

 A practice field, pavilion and other ideas are in the works but likely years away – and still in the dream stage, Roccio said.

Peles noted that the property behind the gift shop is zoned residential. That means projects the church considers would either have to fall within guidelines or require a zoning change.

“Right now, we’re focusing on the store and the parking,” he said. “That’s keeping us busy enough.”

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