Decades of perseverance, a good deal of sweat, some blood, a few tears of joy, and a clear vision for the future resulted, this past Saturday, in four people receiving something they have long cherished: a place to call home on Block Island.
That was the scene in the dining hall of the Harbor Church when what was expected to be a routine announcement about who could move into the four new apartments on the top floor of the church turned into something altogether different. It was a moment of genuine emotion. As it happened, the number of applicants who qualified for the low-income apartments matched exactly the number of apartments available. No one was left out.
Everyone was happy.
The event started with former Pastor Tony Pappas — the moving force behind the project — providing a little history of the church, its various incarnations, and some setbacks. He noted that in the 1960s the congregation voted to demolish the third floor — where the apartments are now — “but they were too broke to remove it. God works in mysterious ways,” said Pappas. It was a haunted house during Halloween at one point, which was fun, he said, “but over the years we have been asking what can we do with it?”
Various ideas were thrown about, but it was decided “year-round rental apartments would be the most useful. The church voted unanimously to go in that direction,” said Pappas.
It was at times not an easy birth.
There were zoning requirements to adhere to, as well as old and outdated materials, used decades ago in the construction, that needed to be removed.
Over time, many people and organizations were involved in the construction project, said Pappas, naming a few who had helped: Donna Corey, Jenn Brady of the Land Use office at Town Hall, Christine Grele, Andy Transue, and the Roosa Fund, which granted the project almost $170,000. There was a round of applause for that.
“Without that we couldn’t have gotten off the drawing board,” said Pappas.
The Champlin Foundation funded the recent window replacement, the Block Island Lions Club donated the appliances, and The Mary D. Fund and the Block Island Fund also donated. Others helped out financially: Melissa Hempstead, Josie Merck, Kay and Keith Lewis, Don McCluskey, and the Hammarskjold family.
Despite this assistance, there was one central question, said Pappas. “How are we going to get all this accomplished?” And the answer was, “Why don’t you talk to Herm Mast?” Pappas said.
Mast, on a volunteer basis, has overseen other projects in town, such as Town Hall and the renovation of the Doctor’s House. Pappas said he took Mast out to breakfast to present him with the idea, and Mast was out the door to look at the church even before breakfast was finished.
“It was the best $16 I ever spent,” said Pappas. “Herm has worked every day since.”
“So, Herm, we want to take a moment to recognize that you made this possible,” said Pappas, “You’re such a great spirit to make this happen.”
New Shoreham Facilities Manager Sam Bird, who has known Mast for 50 years, read a humorous and touching poem called “The Work of Herman Mast,” working into it as many clever rhymes for “Mast” as he could:
“I can only tell you a little here, for the history is so vast/But I’ll share a tiny bit, of the work of Herman Mast.”
There were many laughs throughout, but even Bird had a little trouble reaching the end without getting emotional when he read:
“With this project, and others, people’s futures come from Herm’s past/Cause this just ain’t any old work, my friends! This is the work of Herman Mast.”
A moment after the poem was finished, Mast said quietly: “Do I get a little rebuttal?”
He then mentioned that Pappas had been working steadily on the project, too — “There’s some blood of Mast and Pappas” spilled during the construction, he said.
Mast also gave a glimpse into his own motivation for working on the project.
“We’ve done a wonderful job on Block Island preserving land and resources,” he said, “But maybe it’s time we start preserving community.”
After some gifts were presented, and a few more thanks, Pappas announced who would receive the apartments. Each applicant was allowed to choose which one of the units they preferred, and each applicant asked for a different one so they are able to move into the apartment of their choice.
The new occupants are Kate McConville, Samantha Walker and Tony Saccamando, Susana Gardner — who is a new librarian at the Island Free Library — and her daughter, and Steve Gandolfi, who runs the Block Island Pizza Pie Company.
Pastor Peter Preiser closed out the event with a prayer, asking to “transform these apartments into homes, places to live and celebrate — a microcosm of our larger community.”