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If you go
What: Praise Park opening
When: 2 to 7 p.m. Saturday
Where: 5396 St. Joe Center Road, on the south side between Reed and Maplecrest roads
Events: 2 p.m. with a dedication service, 5 p.m. international soccer game, Christian music, cornhole and tug-of-war contests, Sumo wrestling, pickup soccer, basketball and Wiffle ball games, local artisans and food
Admission: Free
Information: 485-9681
Samuel Hoffman | The Journal Gazette
Christi Murray, director of family ministries for St. Joseph United Methodist Church, walks through what will be an outdoor amphitheater.

Praise Park part of ‘recreation ministry’

Christi Murray is standing in a dusty field, pointing to a corner of a newly poured asphalt parking lot a few yards away.

“That will be the basketball court,” she says, “and in front of us will be the two soccer fields. The softball diamond will be over there.”

But a visitor to this 29-acre plot of land along St. Joe Center Road might well be forgiven if all he or she sees is rock-hard dirt and dried-up grass, she says.

“The drought has hit us pretty hard. But I have an aerial photograph in my office, and there you can really see the layout,” Murray says.

Yes, sometimes it helps to take a long view of things.

And that, Murray says, is what St. Joseph United Methodist Church in Fort Wayne, is doing in developing Praise Park a few hundred feet from its campus at St. Joe Center and Reed roads.

The park, just west of Maplecrest Road, will open amid a festival atmosphere Saturday as part of what Murray calls a “recreation ministry” to a northeast community short on open space.

The facilities of Praise Park, although church-owned, will be open to the public, says Murray, director of family ministries.

The park will enable people to play pickup and organized games, have a picnic, fly a kite, walk or ride a quarter-mile trail and even play or listen to music in a 200-seat natural amphitheater, a specially graded hillside that faces a U-shaped pond.

“We’ve been involved in recreation ministry for a while,” Murray explains. “Definitely we are taking a leap into a whole different concept.

Building a park isn’t generally a trendy thing for churches to do.

“But other than Shoaff Park, there really isn’t that much (green space) around here, and I think it will be good for the community in the long run, and for us.”

Murray says the church initially is not going to overly program the space, hoping that it will develop in whatever ways are in demand in its neighborhood.

But, she says, the church has been involved with the Christian-values-centered Upward youth basketball program for a number of years, and an Upward youth soccer program may be in place in a year or two.

Murray says the park has been in the works since 2005, after the church was approached by two sisters, Elizabeth Wilson and Helen Laws, who had inherited their parents’ farm.

“They wanted to develop it but in a way that was not a strip mall and was more for the community,” Murray says.

Neither was a church member, but the church decided to accept the land as a donation anyway, she says.

A proviso was that the two women would retain a strip of land at the property’s western edge, possibly for a building lot and possibly for sentimental reasons, she says.

Later, the church, which has a weekly attendance of 600 to 800 and is led by the Rev. Russ Abel, found out the new Northeast Family YMCA had bought the farm next door to develop as its new campus.

With a $7 million price tag, the facility will feature an indoor pool, fitness center and gym, officials told the Allen County Plan Commission, which approved the plan last November.

“It seemed like things were coming together,” Murray says, noting conversations are now underway to link the park’s planned walking trails with those of the Y and on the nearby property of Medical Protective Insurance Co.

Murray says a large plot of ground along St. Joe Center Road will be left as green space. The spot would be big enough for a church building, she acknowledges. But she demurs when asked if that is a long-term plan.

“Well, that is not an immediate goal at all,” she says. “We’re thinking there will be enough (use) as it is now. … We’re waiting to see where God leads us.”