‘Keeping the spirit of the church:’ Family converts Market Street Fellowship Church into new home and gathering space

Reporting and writing by Abbey Marshall

The winter sunlight trickles in through stained-glass windows, hues of marbled green and pink dancing across the hardwood stairs descending to the pews.

Kristy Clark, with her 1-year-old daughter Rose on her hip, sweeps her arm across the chapel, excitedly relaying her vision for the space.

“We’ll tear up these pews here and level out the ground and it could be such a nice social hall,” she says. “My dream would be to turn it into an art gallery. How cool would that be?”

As Kristy and her husband, Joe Sofio, navigate through the ongoing construction work downstairs, they don’t see the shell of plywood frames. They see an apartment for neighbors needing a place to stay, a playroom for dates with other parents and children, a stage for musicians, a spacious kitchen for local bakers needing more space.

At 14,778 square feet, their new home has plenty of potential.

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After the congregation of Market Street Fellowship Church decided to relocate to a smaller space, their former building at 981 W. Market St. sat on the real estate market for over a year. The church, originally the Monroe United Presbyterian Church, was built in 1912.

The realtor told Joe potential buyers had visions of grandeur for the large Highland Square structure: a wine-tasting bar, a coworking space. But the offers always dried up when they realized the area was not zoned for commercial use.

Joe recalls the surprise in the realtor’s voice when they put in an offer in March 2020. 

“He said, ‘Oh, but you won’t want it. It’s zoned residential,’” he remembers. “We were the first people to say, ‘Well, that’s perfect because we’re looking for a home.”

Kristy and Joe spent years in New York City, where they met, and then Phoenix. When they became parents to Rose in December 2019, they decided to make the move closer to Kristy’s family in Stow.

But they wanted to move someplace unique — though a church wasn’t really what they had in mind.

“I have a huge family and we’re constantly throwing baby showers, parties, all this stuff and we’re always looking for halls to rent,” Kristy says. “I was looking for a house with a big basement or party room. We couldn’t find anything like that. Then we came across this church.”

As soon as Kristy and Joe saw the home was located on the corner of Market and Rose — the name of their daughter — they were sold.

“How crazy is that?” Kristy says. “It felt like a sign.”

They bought the space in March 2020. They’re now on track to finish renovations on the downstairs area, which includes several multipurpose rooms, a studio apartment, a commercial kitchen and a social hall with a stage by April.

From there, they will renovate the upstairs chapel and church office, where they are currently living.

“We’re never going to sell this place. It can be an ongoing project forever,” Joe says. “And how cool is it for Rose to be growing up in a church office? I think it’ll be cool for her.”

But beyond a home for their family, they’re looking to build community by opening their doors to their neighbors.

“It’s a unique way for us to meet our neighbors,” Joe says. “Like, ‘Hey, we get to know you, and you want to have a baby shower for one of your siblings, then by all means, go for it. Do you need to get out of the house? Come to a little coworking space and hang out.’”

Kristy and Joe always had big hearts when it came to sharing their home with neighbors in need. The two were foster parents for several years in Phoenix before moving to Akron, and they recognized the need for shared space and community building.

“We all know someone who needs a place and would have benefited from a place like this. We saw that with the parents of kids we were fostering. If we meet someone and they have a family member or close friend who is out of luck and needs a place to stay, we’ll open our doors,” Joe says. “That sort of comes from all the fostering we’ve done. We enjoyed doing that the last couple of years and want to continue sharing our home with people.”

The couple hopes to begin opening their doors as early as this summer, pandemic pending. Their first goal is to host a flea market for their neighbors in their parking lot with food trucks, a bouncy house for the kids and local vendors. 

Everyone that uses the space will do so free of charge: rather than a business transaction, they view it as inviting someone to their house and forming relationships.

“We really see this place becoming a modern, progressive version of a church,” Kristy says. “This obviously isn’t a church anymore, but everything that we see ourselves doing here is what you would go to a church to do: community meetings, A.A. meetings, helping a neighbor who needs to get back on their feet.”

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“We kind of want to keep the spirit of the church in our own way,” Joe adds.

Kristy and Joe want their space to bring people together as vaccinations are being distributed more widely and people begin to re-enter their communities after months in isolation.

“We want to bring people back together,” Kristy says. “Last year was really hard for everyone. Humans need contact with other people. We need to be meeting people, interacting, helping each other. When this is done, I really hope we can use this place to bring people back together and start having fun again.”

Photos courtesy of Ilenia Pezzaniti.

Abbey Marshall covers economic development for The Devil Strip via Report for America. Reach her at abbey@thedevilstrip.com.