The fellowship hall of the Mennonite church in Zaandam, the Netherlands, needed a bit of work. The congregation decided it was a chance to make the 1970s annex not just more friendly to the environment but to the community as well.
The rebuilt space opened June 11 to the public, featuring a community center that doubles as an Italian restaurant. The structure opens to a patio at the back of the church, directly above one of the country’s ubiquitous canals.
“The old one was outdated and environmentally in very bad condition,” said Pieter Middelhoven, a member of the church who is involved with the foundation that now governs the building’s use. “Now we have an energy-neutral building with solar panels and air heat pumps.”
The six-month rebuilding project — at a cost of roughly $581,000 — began in September 2017 and was completed in April, requiring what amounted to complete demolition and reconstruction.
Middelhoven said the 1971 addition was built because the congregation needed more toilets.
“The church has historic legal protections, and it is forbidden to build toilets and so on in the church,” he said. “The church dates from 1687 and is a story in itself: built in four months.
“The builder knew how to make ships, so the roof is the hull of a ship. Oak pillars — four out of one trunk — come from a tree planted in 1350. Rather old, you can say!
“There is still sand on the floor for fire prevention, which is easy to clean. It was actually a normal precaution in the 17th century for public buildings.”
More than words
The driving force behind the project was to put faith into action, not just confessing with words.
“All the members of our congregation of 100 people are rather old, 60-plus, so we looked for a system in which others will help us realize our aim,” Middelhoven said.
A partnership was developed with the city of Zaandam’s social services and other Mennonite congregations in the area.
The restaurant, named Sagrestano, is designed to provide employment for people with difficulty finding a job due to disabilities. They can gain experience and make themselves more attractive workers.
While the previous structure was available only to the congregation, the restaurant and coffee house is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and can be rented for events like parties, concerts and lectures at other times. In addition to providing employment to a vulnerable population, it strives to offer high-quality dishes at affordable prices while also raising money for homeless people.
The church views the endeavor as a way for community neighbors to get to know the small congregation more closely and perhaps become involved in worship and other activities.
“We hope we can raise money by renting out the building to the restaurant,” Middelhoven said. “In that way, we can — hopefully — pay for maintenance of it and our church building.”