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It’s a room full of possibilities. Filled with natural light, the new parish hall at St. Nicholas Catholic Church can host everything from potluck dinners to small receptions; from family movie nights to providing a winter shelter for the homeless.

It’s a dream come true for the church on Contee Road.

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“It’s a wonderful addition to our parish,” said Father Mel Ayala, pastor of St. Nicholas. “We really needed the space. We had outgrown our social area.”

The church’s original social hall wasn’t really a hall at all, but a space the back of the church. For functions such as the church’s popular fall bazaar or its volunteer dinner, chairs had to be removed, tables brought in and a cumbersome wooden divider had to be drawn to separate the festivities from the sanctuary.

“It was difficult,” said Rita Goerling, the parish’s project coordinator. “We had to close these wooden doors. The desire for a hall has been since the beginning.”

The dream became a reality when the process began in earnest over two years ago after fundraising for several years.

“All the regulations – the Archdiocese has rules. Prince George’s County has rules, (Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission) has rules for water,” Goerling said, “and then navigating the permit process.”

Avala, who was assigned to the church 2 1/2 years ago, arrived in the middle of the process.

“It was a definite learning experience,” Avala said. “This is my first time being a pastor, and I had never built a building before.”

Construction began in January 2019. As in any project, there were many issues, delays and unexpected costs. A new water line had to be dug, trees had to be planted and new handicap parking signs had to be installed, to name a few.

“It took much longer than expected,” Goerling said. “We had to bring the whole building up to code.”

That meant adding a fire suppression system, including a sprinkler system, to the sanctuary. The property also now has its own fire hydrant.

Goerling called the fire last April at the historic Notre-Dame de Paris cathedral in Paris a powerful example of the importance of the safety additions. Parishioners initially found the addition of pipes on the sanctuary’s ceiling obtrusive.

“Notre Dame, the timing was great,” Goerling said. “We had a real example."

The addition is really a mixture of renovation and new construction. When it was built 50 years ago, the sanctuary featured mirror-image wings along its length. The new social hall was built and extended over one of those wings, with a new outside wall, windows and doors added.

A restroom and entrance compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act were created. The project cost approximately $1.4 million.

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“We have a mortgage again,” Goerling said.

Keeping a close eye on the timeline for the addition’s completion was Tom Arnold, who, along with his wife Karen, coordinates the church’s participation in Laurel Advocacy and Referral Services’ Winter Shelter program.

“They were following every step of the project,” Goerling said. “They had contingency plans.”

For one week, this year beginning on Jan. 17, the church opens its doors every night to offer a dinner and a place to sleep for homeless men. The church has participated in the program since its beginnings in 1991.

This year marks a new beginning.

“In the old days, we used individual classrooms,” Arnold said. “It was hard to keep track of everybody. This space will make things more comfortable for the cots.”

Breakfast items and packed lunches will be given to each man every day. A separate pantry room in the new hall provides a place to prepare and store the food. There is also a sink, a refrigerator and microwaves.

“We hope to one day have a kitchen,” Arnold said, “once the money is there and we get all the permits from the county. We’ll just have to see. We did what was needed to get in the hall."

For now, the congregation is just excited to be able to host the numerous events held in the past.

“We used to have a dinner for St. Nicholas, international dinners, a parish thank-you dinner,” Goerling said. “They’re potlucks. All the food is brought in.”

“It gives us a convenient place to hold social time after Mass and for church dinners,” Arnold said. “We don’t have to take down all those chairs."

All events except Mass ceased when the construction began. Despite heavy tarps covering the opening, dust covered everything, Goerling said. It took three weeks of cleaning to get ready for the hall’s first use - its dedication and blessing by Archbishop Wilton Gregor, Archbishop of Washington, in December.

“We have no plans to rent to the public,” Goerling said. The hall is currently reserved for staff, religious education, parish social events and sacramental receptions.

“It’s a learning process,” Goerling said. “We never had a separate hall before. Now we have the space. What do we use it for?”

When Avala came to the parish, it was celebrating its 50th anniversary. He sees the addition of the social hall as another milestone.

“I’m very excited for this next step for St. Nicholas,” Avala said. “It is a testament to our growth here in South Laurel and the dedication of the parishioners here at St. Nicholas.”

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