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St. Clare Church
By: Jennifer Walker-Journey

When the Rev. Kenneth J. Suibielski became the new pastor of St. Clare Church on the shoreline of historical Westerly Rhode Island in 2005, he didn't plan to take on any building projects. The church had served the community for decades, even when the hurricane of 1938 washed the building out to sea leaving only the foundation, church organ, and alter card. In 1946, the parish rebuilt the church two blocks farther inland but still close enough that one can hear the waves breaking in the distance. That old building had been renovated in 2000 under the direction of the previous pastor, the Rev. Peter Cavanaugh. Over time, the church served its parishioners well.

"But the church community wanted a Parish Center and they raised the money," said Rev. Suibielski, known affectionately as Father Ken. As the new pastor of the New England shingle-style church, perhaps the most valuable thing he could contribute to the plan was what not to do. After all, he had overseen building projects at other churches where he served.

With funds in hand, the church's first step was to find someone to design the new building. Church leadership interviewed several architects, but Tom Lonardo's respect for the historic church spoke volumes.

"We really wanted to be sympathetic to the church and its prominence on the site," said Lonardo, with Thomas Lonardo & Associates, an architecture, interior design and planning firm based in Cranston, Rhode Island.

Lonardo was selected for the job, and it became his trial with the diocese. If all went well with the building of St. Clare Parish Center, his firm would be an approved diocesan architect, a desirable classification for any architect.

Church leadership expressed to Lonardo that the Parish Center would serve as a gathering spot for fellowship and needed to be equipped with a great hall, religious classrooms, and a full-service kitchen. Both Lonardo and Father Ken agreed that the addition should complement the main church building but that the church should remain the focal point. 

"The other factor was how the Parish Center was to be connected to the church. That was of vital importance," Lonardo said.

Lonardo's concept was to add a connector wing from the church to the new Parish Center. This would be accomplished by turning one of the stained glass windows of the church into a doorway leading to the connector wing. This would allow the church community to move more freely between the two buildings while not having to go outside. The connector wing not only provided a buffer between the two buildings, it also created a courtyard at the rear of the church, just in view from the classroom windows. The Parish Center would more than double the size of the church, adding an additional 8,300 square feet to the campus.

The new building was designed in the same New England shingle-style with similar roof system, trim work, and brick wainscoting as the church building. Because Father Ken wanted a more maintainable building, Lonardo incorporated the use of hardy plank singles and elaborate vinyl interlocking shingles that very closely resemble wood but are more sustainable in coastal climates.

The same attention to detail was placed on the interior of the new Parish Center.

Lonardo spent hours selecting colors. He decided on golden yellow with highlights of slate blue. The building was fitted with durable fiberglass doors that were made to look like solid mahogany.

The most challenging part of the process was the site work, according to Lonardo. Not only did the building have to meet stringent building codes for flood and wind requirements to better withstand any future storms or hurricanes, the building and landscape had to be approved by the town arbors. "

On November 22, 2009, just in time for the holiday season, the Parish Center was completed. The response has been phenomenal, Father Ken said.

"The community welcomed and embraced the building without complaint," he said. "As we continue to use the building, that also remains true. People don't say, 'oh, couldn't you do this,' or 'oh, why didn't you do that?' It's very welcoming."

The building was also finished on budget and without change orders, which helped Lonardo become an approved diocesan architect. Just as rewarding is hearing how much the community appreciates the beautiful new Parish Center. Father Ken says it is used almost every day of the year. 

"Tom designed a building that is not a box," he said. "It has an elegance to it without being overstated, a coziness to it without be confining. It has a multipurpose possibility that we have exploited in every possible way in the course of a year for breakfasts, dinners, picnics, lectures, symposiums, workshops, retreats. Not just as a service to the community, but also to other Roman Catholic communities. I think we have done well."

Thomas Lonardo & Associates offers architecture, engineering, planning and interior design to clients, whether they are planning a corporate, commercial, public or private facility, www.tlaarchitects.com.

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