It’s too bad the idea of converting the former Good Shepherd Church into a museum didn’t pan out. When announced nearly two years ago, it seemed a win-win proposal for the congregation, which had moved from downtown to the suburbs, and for the city, which saw an opportunity to branch out from its Capital City Museum on Ann Street. A $1-a-year lease was to shift responsibility for maintenance of the 1850 church to the nonprofit Good Shepherd Center Inc.
Complications arose on both sides of the deal. The city has been struggling with budgetary shortfalls and its Department of Parks, Recreation and Historic Sites is losing Curator Nicky Hughes to retirement, casting doubt on City Hall’s ability to uphold its end of the bargain. Just the upkeep on a building constructed before electricity and indoor plumbing came into common use is problematic. Jim McCarty, co-director of the department, said it would have cost at least $12,000 to put new restrooms in the building. The Good Shepherd parish, meanwhile, is taking another look at the possibility of selling its ancestral sanctuary, along with the old school building and the site of the school gymnasium, which was demolished to make room for the Franklin County Judicial Center project.
With a little luck, despite disappointment over the museum plan’s failure, things could work out for the best. History is downtown Frankfort’s strong suit. Its restored homes and artifact collections are vital to the transformation of the old central business district from a one-time retail center into an office district with tourism as a sideline. But history isn’t enough. Unless downtown resigns itself to being little more than a museum district, it needs to enhance, as much as feasible, its role as a living, breathing community center. The days when almost everyone around here shopped and played in the heart of town are gone, probably never to return, but Downtown Frankfort Inc. is working hard to promote new enterprises that have set up shop in the old buildings to serve nearby residents and office workers as well as suburbanites, who come back for special events like the Candlelight Tour and the Derby Breakfast.
How the former Good Shepherd Church fits into this picture is yet to be determined. In other towns, old churches and dime stores have been transformed into antique malls and restaurants. The big open spaces are quite adaptable to such purposes. But a more desirable outcome is for another congregation to fill pews in the former Catholic church. Downtown revitalization often focuses on restoring commercial vitality after major retail bolts for the suburbs, but spiritual life is just as indispensable if the goal is well-rounded community life in the historic part of town.
Even though Good Shepherd is sorely missed, downtown still has a proud assembly of churches that resisted the urge to move out. Just down Wapping on St. Clair Street is First Baptist. Nearby on Washington is First United Methodist. Not far away are First Christian, First Presbyterian and the Episcopal Church of the Ascension. Surely all would welcome new worshipers into their community of faith, and any newcomer could take pride in a spiritual home that’s unlike anything to be found in the sprawling suburbs.
If God’s willing and the real estate market cooperates, the resurrection of one of downtown’s most historic landmarks as a living church would be a blessing indeed.