Church Merger Leaves Community Art Space With No Home

Kapp Singer | January 31st, 2024

Church Merger Leaves Community Art Space With No Home

Arts In CT  |  Westville  |  Arts, Culture & Community

ArtsInCTDec2021 - 4The former Saint Aedan’s Parish school building, where the Westville Performing Arts Center was located until last month. File photos Lucy Gellman.

The Westville Performing Arts Center (WPAC)—a community art space run by the nonprofit organization Arts in CT—is now homeless.

After three years running drama, music, dance, and visual arts classes on the second floor of the former Saint Aedan’s Parish school building, Arts in CT Executive Director Barbara Alexander turned in the keys on Jan. 17 following what she said was a prolonged and frustrating attempt to secure a rental agreement with the church.

WPAC has been forced to halt programming for the foreseeable future because it no longer has anywhere to host events. Arts in CT, which runs arts programs across the state, also had their administrative offices in the church; now, employees are working from home.

“We are a large, viable presence in our community, and we are looking to raise funds so we can transition into a new home,” Alexander said. “The church was very affordable. We are very disheartened about leaving that location. I’m just unsure about everything at this point.”

“I was surprised they weren’t gonna let us stay there,” said Sue Barstein, an administrator at Arts in CT.  “I feel that what we do is helping the community, and I think it would only be beneficial to them, too. It’s their church and here we are holding programs for kids and helping out the community. I would have thought it was a win-win for them.”

ArtsInCTJan22 - 8Gretchen Frazier teaches violin to Donny Williams Jr. at the Westville Performing Arts Center in 2022.

While WPAC’s removal came as a surprise to Alexander and Barstein, they described that their organization's three-year tenancy in the parish’s former school building at 351 McKinley Avenue was by no means smooth.

In Sept. 2021, Arts in CT signed a year-long lease agreement with the church and began teaching classes in the space. When the lease came up for renewal in Sept. 2022, Arts in CT asked for another year-long term. That same month, however, the priest at Saint Aedan and Saint Brendan Parish had been reassigned to a different parish and there was no church administrator to renew the lease. 

“They would not put anything in writing and would just have you in limbo,” Alexander said.

It was seven months later, in April 2023, that Martin O’Connor, a temporary administrator at Saint Aedan and Saint Brendan Parish, wrote to Alexander that he was “happy” to “provide [her] with documentation about a rental agreement between Arts in Connecticut and the parish.”

“The parish feels fortunate to have a respected non-profit such as Arts in Connecticut fulfilling its critical mission on our campus,” O’Connor wrote. “Saint Aedan and Saint Brendan parish, even as it undergoes significant changes, looks forward to supporting your work.”

On Sept. 6, 2023, however, the church notified Arts in CT that they would not be renewing their lease for a new term. 

“As part of our ongoing review of our facilities and leases, it was decided to let the lease for the Arts in CT program expire this past September along with two other leases,” Emily Taylor, communications director for the Blessed Michael McGivney Parish, wrote in an emailed statement. Taylor explained that this review was initiated following the July implementation of a plan by the Archdiocese of Hartford to merge the eight Roman Catholic parishes across New Haven into the Blessed Michael McGivney Parish. 

Blessed Michael McGivney Parish granted Arts in CT a 60-day grace period to find a new location, asking them to move out by Nov. 6. Arts in CT responded on Sept. 27, asking whether they could continue their operations until the end of the year. The parish responded on Oct. 3 that they had to check with the Archdiocese, and on Oct. 23 they granted Arts in CT’s request to remain until the end of the year.

Amid this uncertainty, Arts in CT began to cancel fall and winter programs, including a planned production of The Little Mermaid and a winter arts festival. Alexander also said that, due to a lack of storage space, she had to throw away several props, including a large platform previously used for a production of Hairspray and a big tree used for Seussical, among other things.

Alexander said she was frustrated by how late the church granted the extension. 

“We shut down programs because [they] never responded, and we could not bring people in here in good faith knowing [they] had already told us to move,” she said.“It was very upsetting.” 

“We fully support the mission and vision of the program, and gave them plenty of notice and even multiple extensions to allow them to find another suitable location,” Taylor wrote in the statement from the parish.

Jennifer MacLean, who worked as a director at Arts in CT’s children’s theater summer camp in 2023, said that Arts in CT’s removal from the church was a “shock.” 

“I thought she was pretty situated there,” she said.

ArtsInCTDec2021 - 1Barbara Alexander (left) and Wesley Yarbor dancing in the Westville Performing Arts Center in 2021.

“It’s sad because I saw Barbara struggle to find a space for Arts in CT,” MacLean added. “I hope she’s able to find another venue and continue what she does.”

Tolga Kaya, whose daughter participated in two shows at the Westville Performing Arts Center, said that the closure of the space is a big loss for the community. 

“[My daughter] really felt part of that community. She still talks to her friends that she made at Arts in CT. Everything was so organic, nothing was forced, and people just connected—it was a very unique environment,” Kaya said.

“Hopefully Arts in CT will somehow find its way back.”