At St. Mary’s, an Invitation “For the Good of the City”

Parish property becomes community space

St. Mary’s, Crystal Lake sits on five bright green acres in the center of town, and in August 2020, Deacon Mike Choquette convened a conversation that led the congregation to consider whether it could do more with that lovely space than admire it.

“We were talking about what it means to be community, and what St. Mary’s role is in the community we are part of,” Choquette says. “This got us to think about how we use the gifts we have ‘for the good of the city.’  One of the biggest gifts we have is this wonderful piece of property and a building used only on Sunday. And we asked ourselves, ‘What happens if we offer the space to the not-for-profits in McHenry County?”

Less than two years later, the church has its answer. St. Mary’s has thriving partnerships with the Raue Center for the Arts, a local organization that hosts concerts and other performances on the church’s lawn and offers music classes in some of its unused office space; and Celebrate Re-Entry, a Christian organization that helps people recently released from prison to resume their lives.

“People are just thrilled to see the space being used,” said Doug Murphy, a co-warden, who said St. Mary’s has long been an “outward-facing” parish with a commitment to local hunger ministries. “The vestry enjoyed talking about this,” he said. “People understood that, son of a gun, here is an asset.”

Congregations across the Episcopal Church are showing a renewed interest in finding new ways to use their buildings and grounds to advance God’s mission in their communities. In recent years, both the Episcopal Church Building Fund and the Lilly Endowment’s Thriving Congregations Initiative have aided such efforts with either training, financing or both. In Crystal Lake, however, the new initiative, was an entirely local affair.

In March 2020, For the Good of the City—its name drawn from Jeremiah 29:7—worked through The Community Foundation for McHenry County to reach numerous local non-profits. The Raue Center, which had discontinued indoor arts offerings at the outset of the pandemic, was the first to respond, asking whether the church would allow it to use its campus for concerts and plays.

With assistance from the diocese, Choquette got a crash course on space use agreements covering “everything from port-a-potties to permits and liability insurance,” and in the summer of 2021, the Raue Center inaugurated Arts on the Green at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, a concert series that some neighbors observed from the lawn, and others from their porches.

“Something miraculous can happen when strangers become neighbors and neighbors become friends,” Choquette said. “We made arrangements so that 25 percent of all tickets were free on a first-come, first-served basis to people and organizations that might not otherwise have been able to see a Raue performance. In addition, we got free advertising space in the playbills to welcome our neighbors to St. Mary’s. I was very excited for this opportunity and I am really glad that so many people joined us.”

Celebrate Re-entry, which was then being run out of a McDonald’s, approached St. Mary’s looking for office space and a place to hold meetings and prayer services. St. Mary’s was able to offer the organization an old classroom. “It is a real opportunity to partner with this organization and to make the redemptive power of Christ known to some of the people who need to hear that message the most,”Choquette said.

In November 2021, the Raue Center contacted the parish again, asking if they could hold theater arts classes in unused rooms in the church, and earlier this year, St. Mary’s became home to Raue Center’s School for the Arts. With two partners, the church now convenes meetings with both organizations, and is looking for ways that each might help the other.

“We are building a community within a community, and that is something I am excited about,” Choquette said. Summer arts camps, which will conclude with participants performing for the neighborhood are in the offing, he said.

In some cases, community partnerships generate a small income stream for a parish, but Choquette said it best to enter such arrangements without expecting much in return.

“Offering something as a gift to another person and not expecting anything back is our Christian call,” he said. “It is giving freely of who we are and what we have. It’s not transactional. It’s not meant to be transactional. It’s meant to be our Christian love.”