NORTH EAST — A brand new sign now adorns the grounds of a very old church in North East, representing the last phase of a four-year-long project.

The decision to create and erect the double-sided heritage sign at St. Mary Anne’s Episcopal Church on Main Street at the southern end of town, as it turns out, was based more on clearing up misconceptions about the 315-year-old church than it was about aesthetics, according to a letter that the rector, The Rev. John Schaeffer, wrote to his congregation in July.

“We cherish our St. Mary Anne’s 315-year history and the fact that our church remains active and vibrant after three centuries. Sadly, though, I have heard countless times from visitors and even neighbors — especially in the early part of my ministry here — that they thought the church was an old museum and not an active church. I’m devastated when I hear that remark. This disappointing and damaging perception undercuts all our efforts to reach others with our mission, outreach, and message,” Schaeffer wrote.

During his early years as pastor, Schaeffer took deliberate steps to offset what he believed to be a “destructive perception” by maintaining an active church calendar, expanding community awareness of St. Mary Anne’s and increasing it social media presence, he reported.

But there was still a need to improve signage on the St. Mary Ann’s campus, which has five distinct buildings, including the historic church, so the Vestry created a Sign Committee.

At the outset, the sign committee first evaluated the church landscape to find shortcomings.

“With fresh eyes, the Committee members looked at our property as a visitor would. They discovered that as one travels down South Main Street, you first notice a wall that divides the church from the community. The church’s main entrance, being on Church Point Road, is not visible from South Main Street. What’s visible? A granite wall — and in the distance— a large east-facing church brick wall with no apparent doorway or main entrance. You need to turn down Church Point Road to see our church’s beautiful entrance and feel welcome. Unfortunately, our walled churchyard property physically separates the church building from the community and helps to feed this inaccurate, inactive church or ‘museum’ perception,” Schaeffer outlined in his letter.

So the sign committee’s “immediate goals” were to identify St. Mary Anne’s five distinct buildings with a coordinated fresh look, to provide some directional assistance to visitors and newcomers, and to connect the Parish Center to the church.

“The main goal: To dispel any public perception that we are a dusty museum,” Schaeffer emphasized in his letter.

From 2017 through 2019, the church achieved most of its signage goals. The list includes installing coordinating and identifying signs — complete with a branded logo — on all Parish Center entrances, the churchyard, the Sexton House, and the parking lot and new entrance signage — in keeping with the traditional Episcopal Church signage — at the church and the Vestry House buildings.

But then the coronavirus pandemic hit in March 2020.

“We lost momentum. With the church calendar blank, and the pews empty, the church sadly began to resemble that dusty, empty museum first imagined by our disinterested neighbors and curious visitors,” Schaeffer recalled.

Now, after a considerable mitigation of the coronavirus pandemic since then, the church has reached its goal of replacing the old, white, wooden sign that faced South Main Street. That old sign lacked stability and required repairs and painting after severe windstorms.

Thanks to a sizable memorial gift from the Larry and Judy Lemasters estate, the church was able to acquire and erect a new sign, according to Shaeffer, who commented, “The Lemasters were people of strong faith with an evangelical heart, so a church sign is a fitting tribute to their evangelical spirit.”

The new, doubled-side sign includes the church’s name, its founding date, the Episcopal flag logo and a listing of church service hours. The lettering matches the black and gold lettered signs on the church building entrances. The new sign has a brick and granite foundation that combines both hand-molded brick to match the church bricks and granite to match the wall along the church property.

Brian Hall, a St. Mary Anne’s parishioner who has more than 30 years of masonry experience, performed the brick work on the new sign.

The new sign, which is perpendicular to South Main Street, center square on the property and stands about eight feet inside the four-foot-high granite wall, is quite visible during the day and at night, when ground floodlights illuminate it. A removable bottom portion, which allows for future modifications, displays service times.

Montauk Signs in Long Island, N.Y. built the new sign to the church’s specifications. In preparation for that sign, a foundation hole was dug, a concrete pad was poured and a cinderblock foundation was laid. Laying brick and trenching for electrical wires also was part of the project.

“The heritage sign promises to be a tasteful, traditional and stabile 24/7 advertisement that we are a church — and we are open — all the while maintaining the historic integrity of the property,” Schaeffer wrote in his letter.

As of Wednesday, the monument base still remains to be completed. A dedication plate, which reads, “Given to the Glory of God and His Church by Larry & Judith LeMasters 2021,” will be attached to the sign in the spring during a dedication and blessing ceremony.

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