When Andrew Knight first purchased the former St. Patrick’s Church and rectory in 2014, he intended it to be just another property in his extensive real estate project portfolio and nothing more.
As he pondered its ideal use, however, he became drawn in by the Twin Cities community and people — so much so that the Virginia-raised developer decided to move here and become a resident of Lewiston.
As for the former church, inspired by its history and craftsmanship, as well as the sheer size of the elegant space — all 15,000 square feet of it — he became determined to give the landmark overlooking Lewiston Kennedy Park new life as a beautiful, relevant, useful function space for the community.
Knight named it The Agora Grand Event Center, choosing the Greek word “agora” because it means “gathering place.”
He spent much of the first year renovating the church’s former rectory into a hotel, which opened in March 2015 as the Inn at the Agora.
Next month, two years after the purchase, the magnificent Agora Grand Event Center will open for business. Knight’s hope is that the gathering place he envisioned will become a social, cultural, and business hub of L-A where hundreds of people will come to celebrate, work, play and connect.
The center will host a mostly invitation-only grand opening on May 7 to celebrate the space with the many people who made the center possible. However, many members of the public will actually get a chance to see some of the space before that, when the event center becomes one of the venues for the Emerge Film Festival on April 30. Then, the center’s first official customers will be no other than Knight and his fiance, who will get married there on May 21.
A community project
Transforming the much-loved St. Patrick’s Church quickly became the mother of all re-purposing projects, with Knight having to decide what to do with everything from pews to confessionals, missing windows and pipe organ space. “Within an hour of closing on the property, I was in my work clothes and starting in,” said Knight, who declined to offer how much he’s invested on the property so far.
Some of the biggest improvements were brand new, among them a new high-efficiency natural gas heating system and an air conditioning system.
Many local contractors were brought in. Knight specifically mentioned Ryan Rhoades, a skilled carpenter and wood worker and an active member of the community. “I don’t know how I got lucky enough to find him, but his participation has been crucial to the success of the renovation. He has gone above and beyond,” Knight said of Rhoades.
Knight noted, “When I first started the work, I wanted to be able to say I’d single-handedly created the Agora Grand Event Center and the Inn at the Agora. Now I am honored and humbled to say that this project is the result of lots of hardworking, dedicated and supportive people and companies, who will be honored at our grand opening on May 7.”
Knight said his hope is that the Agora Grand will serve as a catalyst in the gentrification of downtown Lewiston and that it will be instrumental in advancing the growth of Lewiston-Auburn as an artistic, culinary and cultural hub. “I would love to host a variety of events that attract people of all ages from throughout the state,” he said.
A chapel for 200
The marriage of developer Knight and Annie Allen, a new doctor who will specialize in obstetrics, will take place on May 21 and be the first wedding in Agora Grand’s chapel, one of the features of St. Patrick’s Church, accommodating up to 200 guests. “The Agora Grand is part of who I am now, and I can’t think of any better place to celebrate my love for Annie,” said Knight.
Space, lights and sound
A great deal of thought and effort has been applied to the state-of-the-art sound and lighting systems in the reception hall. Accommodations for DJs and live bands entertaining up to 450 guests and for slide presentations for business meetings all needed to be considered.
Because church leaders sold the stained-glass windows in the main sanctuary to a company in Japan before selling the church, all that remained in the sanctuary were clear panes. All was not lost, however. Multi-colored LED lighting has been installed allowing the windows to glow in an array of colors to complement other interior lighting and event decorations, all controllable from a master switch.
Most of the pews were removed to make room for the dance floor and banquet tables, but some were kept and moved to provide bench seating. “As I was pulling them out, I found dozens of pennies, some dating back to the 1800s. I think they must have fallen out of parishioners’ pockets,” said Knight.
From confession to concession
A grand building in 1890
St. Patrick’s Church was built in 1890 and cost the equivalent of $8 million in 2015 dollars. It still holds the distinction of being the tallest structure in Maine at 220 feet. With its neogothic architecture, ornate spires reaching to the heavens and 55-foot-high ceilings, it remains one of the jewels of the city, a landmark that connected thousands of people over multiple generations. Beautifully elegant, it punctuates the cityscape with two emphatic exclamation points.
From organ to bar
Remaining stained-glass windows
While many stained-glass windows were removed from the church, fortunately some, including the rose window over the front entrance in the reception hall and others in the chapel, remain. Many of them have been expertly repaired by stained-glass artist Jim Nutting, owner of Maine Art Glass Studio in Lisbon Falls.
Knight’s favorite feature
It isn’t quite finished yet, but Knight’s favorite feature of Agora Grand is the deluxe balcony lounge where hundreds of choir members once stood to sing praises and prayers to God — now repurposed for a different use.
The church’s organ has long since been removed and, today, the pipe organ facade and cabinetry enclose a full bathroom, mirrored walls and a whirlpool tub for two. Meanwhile, the upper-level viewing platform, framed by the original tall organ pipes, provides a magnificent view of the reception hall.
Plans for the balcony lounge, which also has a bar and comfortable couches, include use as a VIP area for special events, a bridal party lounge or as a luxurious space for smaller gatherings.
Karen Schneider is the editor of Northern Journeys, a publication that supports the arts, and has been a contributor for the Sun Journal since 1996. When she isn’t writing or editing, she’s cooking, enjoying her seven grandchildren or playing the ukulele. She can be contacted at [email protected]