Cambria City is a little treasure chest of a neighborhood in Johnstown. It is here you will find art galleries, restaurants, architecturally stunning churches, a floral shop, a huge indoor and outdoor children’s play center, museums, and even a few buildings that survived the devastating 1889 Johnstown Flood.
It is here you also will find one of the most groundbreaking arts venues in the region, Venue of Merging Arts (VOMA), nestled on a little corner where Third Avenue meets Chestnut Street.
VOMA is a place where you can see rappers rappin’, blues bands jammin’ and poets slammin’. When it comes to live entertainment, this venue does not discriminate.
That’s exactly what people seem to love about VOMA: one evening you could be attending a painting party in the first floor gallery, and the next evening, you could be downstairs in the basement (also known as Club VOMA), doubling over in your seat as a stand-up comedian shares his best jokes with an attentive crowd.
This is a story of a church-turned-arts-venue. No, wait – this is a success story of a church-turned-arts-venue. Because VOMA, now a dearly beloved Cambria City destination that is very much a part of this neighborhood’s ever-growing charm and ongoing revitalization, is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year.
The church at 305 Chestnut Street was constructed in the early 1900s and bestowed the name St. Mary’s Syrian Orthodox Church. According to a report published in 1989 by National Park Service, “During the Depression the congregation lost possession of the property to the county sheriff but it was able to repurchase it in 1941.”
This report, “Character of a Steel Mill City: Four Historic Neighborhoods of Johnstown, PA,” goes on to state that “in 1973 a dissident congregation from St. Petka Serbian Orthodox Church bought the church and adjoining residence and changed the name to St. George’s Serbian Orthodox Church in 1977.”
Married couple Janet and Dennis Mical both grew up in Cambria City. Janet attended a wedding at the church in the 1960s, when it was still known as St. Mary’s. She remembers the service (standing room only) and how beautifully the choir members sang. When the wedding party moved downstairs for the reception, she watched in awe as they danced their Syrian dances.
Unfortunately, as the years went by, St. George’s Serbian Orthodox Church’s congregation dwindled. Dennis says that, at one point, the church’s doors were only opened for holidays and funerals.
“My understanding is that, eventually, the congregation could no longer afford to maintain the church,” Dennis says.
By 2008, the church had fallen into disrepair. A neighbor, Janet says, even reported finding pieces of the church’s shingles in her yard.
That’s when people started talking . . . perhaps the church could be torn down? Might Gary Matolyak want an extra parking lot?
“Gary did not jump on that opportunity,” Janet says of the late owner and manager of Ace’s Lounge on Chestnut Street, which is located across the street from VOMA (and is now known as Ace’s Banquets and Catering).
What a sigh of relief that was for Janet, who felt that she and her husband had to do something. Fresh in their minds were the demolitions of two other beautiful neighborhood churches on Chestnut Street: Shiloh Baptist Church and St. Emerich’s.
“We didn’t want this church to have that same fate,” Janet says.
In January 2009, despite the dust and the mildew and the myriad other problems associated with the church and its adjoining parsonage, Janet and Dennis bought the property with the intention of gifting it to the community and turning it into an arts venue.
Other churches, after all, had been successfully repurposed. In Pittsburgh’s Lawrenceville neighborhood, for example, stands The Church Brew Works. Before it became a brewpub in 1996, it was St. John the Baptist Church.
Janet’s sons, T.K. and Adam Mundok – both busy pursuing their own careers as artists – offered to assist their mother and stepfather. T.K. and Adam brought their artistic backgrounds to the project and buckled up for the ride.
Dennis, Janet, T.K. and Adam – VOMA’s founders – settled on this plan: the main floor would serve as an art gallery and the basement as a space for everything from bridal and wedding showers to jam sessions and open mic nights. They tossed around some possible names for the venue before deciding that Venue of Merging Arts was “the one.”
Next, they recruited volunteers. There was, after all, so much to do: lights to install, pipes to fix, fundraisers to plan . . .
As word about repurposing the church spread, artists began showing interest and enthusiasm.
The project especially caught the attention of artists involved with Johnstown’s My Idea of Fun Collective; these artists had enjoyed playing and booking shows at 709 Railroad Street, a former warehouse turned arts venue. A few neighborhoods away, in Moxham, David DiStefano founded a similar venue called Satori Gallery/Studio.
One might call 709 Railroad Street and Satori Gallery/Studio the “blueprints” for VOMA because before their doors permanently closed, these venues also strived to cater to the artists, poets, thespians and musicians living in and around Johnstown.
VOMA was soon to become a place where local artists’ fun and innovation and self-expression could continue.
Never mind that there was neither heat nor ceiling tiles in the basement during the inaugural shows. Gary from Ace’s loaned the founders a makeshift stage upon which “Dave D” happily played, as did fellow early performers Perrywinkle Shag and Endless Mike and The Beagle Club.
In June 2009, VOMA was established as a Pennsylvania non-profit corporation. Once all the necessary paperwork with the IRS was completed and 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status was approved, Dennis and Janet donated the former church building to the non-profit.
One year later, in 2010, a non-profit corporation called 1901 Church, Inc. purchased three former church buildings in the Cambria City neighborhood: SS. Casimir and Emerich; Immaculate Conception Church; and St. Columba. The non-profit launched The Steeples Project in order to “develop sustainable reuses” for these churches, according to www.steeplesproject.org. (In the years since, these properties were indeed repurposed. SS. Casimir and Emerich is now owned by Stella Property Development and Event Production, LLC, and has been renamed Casimir Cultural Center. Immaculate Conception Church is now known as The Grand Halle on Broad Street. St. Columba retains its name, and plans are being made for it to become Johnstown’s newest theatre space.)
Of these four former churches that were saved from demolition, VOMA is the smallest.
“We’re the smallest building with the smallest budget within the Cambria City Cultural Partnership,” Dennis says. “But even though we’re the small fish in the pond, we are very resourceful.”
Money continues to be raised for renovations. There is still work to be done on the parsonage, for example, which includes offices, a kitchen, a meeting room and lodging. The lodging accommodations are particularly lauded by touring artists who appreciate staying overnight just steps away from where they perform.
VOMA’s gallery still very much retains its spiritual atmosphere thanks in part to the stained-glass windows, the altar and the choir loft, as well as the thoughtful renovations that have highlighted some of the former church’s most beautiful interior features. In the gallery, new gold leaf painting shines on the chandeliers, and high above the former altar, which is now a stage, a light has been installed behind what was a previously dark stained-glass window that depicts a “Lamb of God” image. This summer, renovations were completed on the exterior of the bell tower.
“The place has been desanctified, but we still feel it’s blessed ground,” Janet says. “Spirits get lifted here in much the same way as they get lifted in a church.”
Consider the photomosaic, which features hundreds of tiny photos that, when carefully arranged, depict one large primary image. That’s one way to describe how VOMA operates: lots and lots of faces working together to create “the big picture.”
Though Dennis, Janet, Adam and T.K. certainly help “steer the ship” (Dennis is chairman; Adam was executive director and is now an active volunteer; Janet is volunteer coordinator; T.K. is a contributing artist), the organization has relied – and continues to rely – on countless volunteers to help with events, fundraisers and marketing.
A board of directors keeps the non-profit running smoothly, and a newly established advisory board consists of patrons who work to identify issues that need addressed and, using their various professional backgrounds, formulate and implement solutions to help ensure VOMA’s continued growth.
Other dedicated volunteers have instituted well-received programming. They include: Don Aliquo, Mark Perna, Scott Jeffreys, Josh Ensley, Karen Mesaros and Micah Mood.
Don and Mark are responsible for the VOMA Jazz Series, which is held on the third Saturday of every month. The series often features Frank Filia on vocals. Frank has been singing (or “crooning,” as fans like to call it) since he was a young man, and his talent even took him to Las Vegas, where he met Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Aretha Franklin.
Scott is considered the “founding father” of VOMA’s Blues Gathering, a monthly celebration of blues music that takes place the last Saturday of every month.
Josh’s Hullabaloo Collective, a concert management and production team, brought dozens of well-regarded bands (including Consider The Source, Jonathan Scales Fourcestra and Dr. Slothclaw) to the venue. Many of these bands made return trips to VOMA.
For years, Karen has offered guided art parties for people of all ages through her company, Mesaros Arts and Entertainment, LLC. Karen’s art parties include step-by-step art instruction, art supplies and light snacks.
Micah is the man behind VOMA’s annual Folk and Bluegrass Series. He’s been booking shows at VOMA since 2010.
“A lot of these bands wouldn't have the opportunity to play in Johnstown if it weren't for VOMA, so it's great to bring them in for shows,” Micah says. “VOMA brings new bands through town and also shows off Johnstown a bit. More than one band has spent quality time over at George's Song Shop shopping for records. We have bands through that play all over the East Coast, and I've often heard that VOMA is one of their favorite places to play all year.”
Micah applauds VOMA’s active volunteers.
“We have a lot of great volunteer help for the shows in terms of running the door, setting up the room, running the bar and cleaning up afterwards,” he says. “Without that help, the shows would not be nearly as nice as they are.”
These familiar faces – and many others, to be sure – make VOMA the hip, 4.7-stars out of 5-stars Facebook-rated and 4.6 stars out of 5-stars Google Reviews-rated venue that it is.
And the venue, of course, would be empty without the people who come to perform there, and the people who come to see those people perform.
“This place is a magnet for people you might not expect to see here,” Janet says.
She uses Tom Chulick as an example. Tom, the award-winning executive chef at the neighboring Back Door Café, has stopped by the venue many times over the past decade, ready to take out the harmonica tucked into his pocket.
Indeed, VOMA is a place that provides an “escape.” What’s more, it’s a place where artists can find an audience that’s “totally tuned in,” as Dennis likes to say.
One evening a few years ago, George Byich, a fingerstyle guitar soloist, headlined a show. He received three standing ovations, including one that took place right in the middle of a song.
“I remember George saying to me, ‘I never felt so much like a rock star,’” Janet says.
This comment pulls the conversation in another direction. VOMA, the founders say, has helped local artists to establish the groundwork for their impressive careers.
This year, Michael Meketa received his Masters of Fine Arts in Musical Theatre Writing from the New York University’s Tisch School of Arts. In 2011, Michael (a senior at Conemaugh Valley High School at the time) directed, produced and choreographed a 1974 Broadway musical written by John Driver. “Ride the Winds” flopped in New York City, but Michael resuscitated it at VOMA – and John himself flew from Sacramento to Johnstown to attend both the dress rehearsal and the performance that weekend.
Then there’s David Myers Jr., whose band, Bitter Authority, played at VOMA’s Teen Open Mic Nights. (Teen Open Mic Nights were hosted by Josh Maurizio and Britney Berkebile of the band Allegory; both Josh and Britney are currently pursuing music careers in Nashville.) David eventually attended Musicians Institute College of Contemporary Music in Hollywood and met Grammy Award-winning singer Frank Ocean. David toured with Frank across Europe and North America, and performed with him on TV.
“I can still remember watching David perform on Saturday Night Live,” Dennis says. “And it made me think about how, before VOMA came into existence, he had never even played outside of his school.”
The programming at VOMA is so diverse and eclectic that it makes Janet marvel at the success of it all.
“It amazes me,” she says, “that so many people have been able to pull people together the way they have.”
VOMA’s calendar, which is regularly updated on VOMA’s official website at www.thevoma.com,
is referred to as “open.” Magicians, psychics, DJs, playwrights, comedians . . . anyone is welcome to reach out and book an event, public or private.
“If someone has an idea for a public event that they’d like to do, there’s an application form to fill out, and we try to accommodate,” Dennis says.
Micah, who not only books shows but also plays shows as a member of the band Striped Maple Hollow, says that sell-out shows are becoming more and more common, due in part to affordable pricing for high-quality entertainment and the sense of community that VOMA’s programming has come to provide. Plus, it’s an ideal space for live music. Patrons and performers alike often use the word “intimate” to describe Club VOMA.
“We've had some amazing performances at VOMA, and I didn't need binoculars to see the musicians,” Micah says.
Many regular patrons elect to purchase a VOMA V.I.P. membership. The membership provides discounts on tickets for many select events. V.I.P.s also have the option to reserve seating, and to receive discounts for private rentals for birthday parties, bridal showers, baby showers and other similar events.
Each year, VOMA offers additional programming to the community through their participation in Bottle Works – Arts on Third Avenue’s Third Avenue Arts Festival and Cambria City Ethnic Festival. VOMA volunteers also operate The Children’s Corner during Thunder in the Valley.
Richard Burkert, president and CEO of Johnstown Area Heritage Association, describes VOMA’s year-round programming as “a cultural asset to Johnstown residents.”
Creativity and originality are celebrated at VOMA. Volunteers urge artists to be themselves, to take risks, and to develop and embrace their styles. This may mean, for example, that you clutch a stuffed teddy bear while singing lead vocals in your punk rock band (true story).
VOMA, by the way, is more than just an arts venue – it’s a community-oriented gathering place. In July, volunteers hosted a “Celebration of Life” party to honor the late Lorraine Bezy, co-founder of downtown Johnstown’s Chameleon Bookstore. And quite regularly, young adults diagnosed with autism enter the building to participate in art classes as part of Becky Leap’s Teen and Young Adult Autistic Social Club and Support Group.
“Some of them are non-verbal,” Janet says of the group’s participants. Right in front of Janet’s eyes, they have created some of the most beautiful artwork she has ever seen, leaving her in a similar state of awe that she found herself in decades ago while watching the Syrian dances in St. Mary’s Syrian Orthodox Church’s reception hall.
Moving forward, Dennis says he would like to see even more events and activities on the calendar, to help volunteers secure corporate sponsorships and apply for grant funding, and to eventually ask the board of directors to consider hiring a paid executive director. Volunteers also are interested in exploring how to make the most of VOMA’s inclusion in Cambria City Cultural Partnership; ideally, another outdoor annual festival could be planned.
But for now, it’s time to celebrate, celebrate and celebrate some more.
VOMA’s 10th anniversary “Golden Oldies” show is scheduled for Sept. 14 beginning at 7 p.m. at Johnstown’s Masonic Temple at 130 Valley Pike. Entertainment is to be provided by Pittsburgh BelAirs, Buddy Dee, That Oldies Band and The Renegades. All four bands will perform popular songs from the 1950s through the 1970s. The evening includes a buffet dinner and a cash bar, and all proceeds are to benefit VOMA’s Renovation Fund. Tickets can be purchased at VOMA, Anthony’s Restaurant and George’s Song Shop.
“Celebrating a decade is a tremendous accomplishment for any organization, and it’s my hope that what we started will be continued by others for decades to come,” Adam says. “VOMA is a volunteer organization, so everyone who has participated over the years deserves applause and acknowledgement because we couldn’t have lasted this long without you.”
With the community’s continued support, this venue will continue to attract the art makers and the art lovers in this city and beyond.
“Art connects us,” Adam says. “It always has.”
And it always will.