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Greene Memorial Honors Past As It Renovates for Future

Greene Memorial Church is a well known icon in downtown Roanoke.

by Frances Stebbins

It has taken more than 20 years of dreaming and planning but members of historic Greene Memorial United Methodist Church in downtown Roanoke soon will be poised to offer more help to people in the inner city community. A year’s renovation to much of the 1892 stone building and more than $2 million has updated facilities which members showed off at an Open House on March 20.

Some construction is still under way and there wasn’t enough money to build a south portico and long ramp for wheel chairs yet, but an upstairs room is ready for meetings of community groups, showers are in place for those who may need temporary housing, offices are conveniently located near the new entrance foyer on the south end of the building and an elevator goes from basement fellowship hall to the nursery on the third floor.

With its new construction, Greene Memorial joins several other downtown Roanoke houses of worship where extensive renovation has been completed in the 21st Century, including Beth Israel Synagogue and St. John’s Episcopal Church. Other groups have plans.

The Rev. Gary Robbins, Greene Memorial’s pastor for the past four years, said congregations serving old downtown neighborhoods have to upgrade or die. And even as the worst economic recession in 80 years struck, members, many active in the parish for their long lives, came forth with the money to undertake the renovation, he noted.

As was true at St. John’s several years ago, the interior of the church has not been significantly changed. To the relief of some older members, who see screens eliminating hymnals as an intrusion on interior beauty, any recently installed will be out of sight except when needed for computer-generated programs.

But there are new ideas a-plenty in the south end of the building, which is brighter now that the old Downtown Learning Center for child day care is no longer there. The old asbestos tile has been replaced with newer wood materials, the obsolete stage is now open space in the fellowship hall, though a pull-down screen can be used when needed, and the kitchen is twice as big since the oil tanks long unneeded are gone.

One of the major needs of a church today, program director Debbie Brown pointed out, is nursery and child space similar to what young parents look for in secular facilities. And though it hasn’t many children, there are plenty living in rental property nearby who will be able to benefit when church outreach groups put on events for them and their parents.

The second and third floor space has been renovated for younger age groups. The communications / community center is there as well, including a lounge that leaders  hope will be inviting to young adults that live downtown.

Most noticeable is the entrance hall carved out of cluttered small rooms on the first floor; the main access, with stairs, has been moved a few feet toward Luck Avenue. Architect Rife and Wood, like other firms who do a lot of church building plans, have provided an inviting gathering place. It’s especially important that church goers have these foyer spaces to meet for coffee after worship, they say. Formerly, Greene Memorial worshipers crowded into a tiny dark hall as they exited the nave to Second Street.

For the record, Greene Memorial on Second Street with its landmark clock tower was once St. Mark’s Lutheran Church. A financial panic 110 years ago resulted in a trade between the Lutherans, who couldn’t afford the new stone structure, with the larger Methodist group. The Methodist’s dynamic young pastor, Leonidas Rosser Greene, died of typhoid fever at 33 and a shocked Roanoke Methodist congregation named the newly acquired building for him. But the congregation itself goes back to 1859 and is considered the “mother church” of the denomination in the city though parishes in Fincastle, Salem and Vinton antedate it.

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