Festival spreads the gospel about church repairs in downtown New Bedford

Crowds can always be a question for new events, but a steady stream of attendees young and old enjoyed food trucks, live music, beautiful weather and informational tables set up by numerous local organizations Saturday, at William and Eighth streets downtown.

The festival was an effort to raise community awareness about repair needs at three historic, 19th-century churches: First Baptist Church, the Gallery X building — once home to First Universalist Church — and First Unitarian Church, at Eighth and Union streets. Festival participants said that mission was very well met.

“It’s a good day — we’ve had more than 40 people stop by,” said Amanda DeGrace, development coordinator for the Waterfront Historic Area League, or WHALE. WHALE is launching a capital campaign next month for First Baptist, which currently has no heat, crumbling plaster, windows with no glass and other structural problems.

WHALE executive director Teri Bernert has said the campaign’s first goal is to raise funds for a new boiler, hopefully before winter sets in.

The campaign will be conducted jointly with Your Theatre Inc., which announced an agreement to buy the building last November, through a collaborative effort with the city and WHALE. The total project cost could be about $1.4 million, Bernert said.

DeGrace said she had several conversations Saturday about the potential for upcoming “restoration tours” and work weekends at the church, where volunteers can pitch in with simple repair and upkeep tasks.

“People are getting excited about it,” DeGrace said. “Every little bit helps.”

Not far up William Street, Gallery X vice president Charles Hauck said he’d had “a great turnout” at the church-turned-art-gallery, where musicians performed out front and colorful crafts adorned the walls inside.“For a first year, we’ll really happy,” Hauck said. “You go by these buildings, but you don’t always go inside. We want people to see the buildings, see the architecture and learn about it.”

Anne Louro, the city’s preservation planner, said the impact of festivals like Saturday’s can be “enormous,” especially for the William Street area that’s a few blocks up from the New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park.

“Everything above the cobblestones sometimes is forgotten,” Louro said.

Louro said that while “the city is limited” in its ability to directly boost campaigns such as church restorations, efforts by nonprofit organizations and community groups can create opportunities for the city to provide in-kind services and other, non-financial contributions.

“It’s about supporting them so they can advocate for themselves,” she said.

Follow Mike Lawrence on Twitter @MikeLawrenceSCT.