Parishioners of the 120-year-old church will continue to worship together at First Presbyterian of Haddon Heights. Finding a new home for its Kaleidoscope Kids preschool is a taller task.
By Matt Skoufalos | June 8, 2023
Broad-scale change can be difficult for any institution to process and absorb.
But for the congregation of the 120-year-old Collingswood Presbyterian Church, confronting the realities of losing the home it’s occupied for more than a century has been a years-long experience; one punctuated by prolonged introspection.
The church, like many others, has faced declining membership, which finally waned to an unsustainable level in recent years.
Sometimes, in-person services are attended by as few as five parishioners, with others participating remotely, said Collingswood Presbyterian Elder and President of the Board of Trustees Candace Lowden.
“There were thousands of people here back in the heyday of churches,” Lowden said. “In the 70s, it came down to hundreds, and then tens, and now there’s about a dozen of us [adults] that are here.”
Although Lowden is not the oldest member of the church community, she believes herself to be its longest-tenured current member. As a child, she was baptized, confirmed, and attended Sunday school at Collingswood Presbyterian. As an adult, she was married in the church, her children were baptized there, and her husband’s ashes are interred in its memorial garden.
The thought of leaving behind the house of worship with which the major events of her life are so intimately connected is as difficult as it was unforeseen, Lowden said.
“It’s really hard,” Lowden said. “I never thought that I would see the church have to close its doors due to lack of membership, and that’s where we are.”
After hours of conversation and deeply focused prayer, the congregation made “a very, very difficult decision,” to seek a buyer for its home at 30 Fern Avenue, Lowden said.
“This didn’t come easy,” she said. “We prayed on this all the time, just for the Lord to lead us in the right direction of where we needed to go, what we needed to do and how we wanted to do it.
“It breaks my heart,” she said. “This is my church family, and the people who are here have all been through the ups and downs of the church.”
Now she’s doing her best to help lead them into the next phase of its history.
‘We didn’t want to disband’
Collingswood Presbyterian Church was established in 1903 at the corner of Haddon and Frazer Avenues, where the Collingswood Public Library is situated; its current building, at Maple and Fern Avenues, was built in 1917.
Sale of the 33,000 square-foot property has been in the works for the past two years, Lowden said.
The church worked with NAI Mertz Commercial Realty to secure a contract with an as-yet-unidentified redeveloper that Lowden said has experience repurposing churches into apartments and condominiums. Rough plans involve converting the building into some 25 or 30 apartments while preserving as much of its historic character as possible.
The congregation had faced the prospect of closing its doors as recently as 2021, Lowden said; instead, the decision was made to pour the last of its funds into a $100,000-plus masonry project to restore the building.
That choice was made, in no small part, to secure the facility for its child care program, Kaleidoscope Kids.
“We could have folded at the time, but we wanted the church to continue, and we wanted it to be safe for everybody,” Lowden said. “There was always the possibility that another church was going to purchase it, but that didn’t happen.”
Collingswood Presbyterian will hold its final service June 18; starting June 25, parishioners will begin worshiping at First Presbyterian Church of Haddon Heights. A final close-out service will be held sometime in the fall of 2023. Importantly, Lowden said, the congregation will persist in its new home.
“We just felt so connected to each other, and connected to our faith, and connected to believing, to continuing Christ’s message to the world, that we didn’t want to disband,” she said.
Although the Collingswood Presbyterian congregation will no longer gather in Collingswood, Kaleidoscope Kids will continue to operate out of the church in Collingswood until June 2024. After that time, its fate is uncertain; Lowden said the congregation has explored the possibility of moving the school to Haddon Heights too, but the church there isn’t equipped to accommodate the program.
However, the sale of the church building will once again give Collingswood Presbyterian the opportunity of funds to support its mission programs, which includes Kaleidoscope, Lowden said.
“We have asked members of our congregation for their input on how to best use the proceeds; we will make that determination in the future,” she said.
“Over the years, we’ve supported many things, from Heifer International to the Crop Walk to the Interfaith Homeless Outreach Council, and Urban Promise,” she said. “Part of that mission is also First Presbyterian of Haddon Heights.”
‘The church and the preschool are one’
Kaleidoscope Kids, which Collingswood Presbyterian established to meet childcare needs in the borough, is also a big part of its mission work.
It was begun in 2015 with the support of the late Rev. Dr. Katherine Killebrew, and has been “a labor of love” that “made our church come to life,” Lowden said.
“The church and the preschool are one,” she said.
“They are not a separate entity just using our space. We did it together.
“As a mission project, it was a happy thing to see the children here,” Lowden said. “The sound of their voices, and laughter, and the pitter-patter of feet; it does bring joy to your heart.”
Kaleidoscope Kids Administrator Brooke Truong said the program predominantly serves families from Collingswood and Haddon Township, most of whom live within walking distance to the facility.
Classes are held two, three, four, and five days a week, on morning, lunch, or full-day schedules. Classroom sizes vary by enrollment, but Kaleidoscope hosts some 35 to 40 kids onsite daily, and about 50 children overall.
Although the school has already begun seeking a new home for when the building turns over next summer, relocation is neither easy nor inexpensive.
Any new facility would need to be relicensed by the state Department of Children and Families, at a cost of tens of thousands of dollars. Outfitting a new space requires environmental testing, which is comparably expensive, and certain kinds of facilities — those previously used as dry cleaners, nail salons, funeral homes, service stations — are prohibited from becoming child care centers.
“We would like to keep it in Collingswood, especially if we can keep it close to the main street,” Truong said.
“There’s no land to build upon, so we’re really waiting for an opportunity to unfold for us,” she said. “We want to be that place where parents are comfortable, and know that their kids are being cared for.”
A new building could offer some amenities that the church doesn’t currently have — like air conditioning — and which would allow the program to operate from late June through early September, when it traditionally has closed.
Summer care is “a huge need for families in the area,” Truong said, as well as for teachers at Kaleidoscope, who would welcome the opportunity of year-round employment a new facility could theoretically offer.
“We would need a common area for kids to run, and get energy out during inclement weather and cold days,” Truong said.
“We need an outdoor space as well that can be fenced in, and allows us to have the proper ground coverage for safety.
“That environment needs to be tested, and approved, and safe for the kids.”
Other than finding a location, timing is also a consideration for the preschool.
At Kaleidoscope, enrollment for the 2024-2025 preschool year begins in January, a deadline that Truong said is fast approaching, and will be affected by the size of the building the school is able to obtain — as will tuition rates.
“If we don’t find a place, then what is our backup plan?” Truong said. “Do we take a year hiatus? Do we start looking outside of the areas where we really want to be?
“Parents need to know where their kids are going to physically be,” she said. “We’re coming down to the wire to really be able to have that set in stone.”
In whichever form the preschool and congregation find themselves in the coming months, Lowden and Truong are adamant that both will endure.
“We want to help families raise kids in a world where everybody is accepting, and loving, and kind, and considerate to everybody,” Truong said. “It comes through the teachers to the kids, and it’s very wholesome.
“They feel comfortable here,” she said. “They know that they’re loved; they know that they’re cared for. They know that they’re accepted.”
For Lowden, losing the building doesn’t mean giving up what it represents to the faithful who’ve worshiped there all her life.
“This is a physical building, so we can let the building go,” Lowden said, “but we’re not letting our faith go, and that’s why we stayed together as Collingswood Presbyterian Church.”
“Through thoughtful and careful and peaceful prayer, we came to a decision that the best use of our talents and gifts and our love would be to blend with another church,” she said. “It will be hard, but it would be a blessing that we’re going there. We’re not really starting over somewhere else.
“The Lord is guiding us there,” Lowden said. “I feel it in my heart, and we all do.”
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