ALAN WECHSLER Staff writer
Section: CAPITAL REGION,  Page: B1

Date: Saturday, August 19, 2000

St. Joseph's Church looms over the Ten Broeck neighborhood: soaring Gothic spires, stained-glass windows, 140-year-old stone walls -- and weed-choked yards and ``Danger -- Falling Debris'' signs. For six years, this historic building a block from Clinton Avenue has been empty. For a time there was talk it might get torn down. No longer.

Now, for a token $1 purchase price, a local restaurant family has taken over the property, promising to restore the building to its former greatness. But instead of holding services, the structure will be a place for weddings, concerts and charity events, says Elda Abate and her family.

The Abates -- Mario and Elda, and their children Mario, 25, and Elda, 21 -- own and operate Elda's Restaurant & Pizza in Troy, the Eldorado Tavern across the street and Elda's Restaurant in Albany.

Though the church may face hundreds of thousands of dollars in improvements, the Abates say they hope to have it operating by Easter. They plan to apply for historic preservation and other grants to help.

``We're going to have many things going on in the neighborhood,'' said the elder Elda Abate.

The Abates had been talking to the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany since April. They had been touring Albany, looking at old churches to convert into a catering hall. When they first walked inside this one, wearing hard hats for safety, they saw the sun washing through the sometimes-broken stained-glass windows, the pipe organ, and the angel statues near the cathedral ceiling, and knew this 12,000-square-foot structure was the one.

The church agreed.

``I think this is a natural for a building of this size and this beauty,'' said Noel Olsen, director of the Diocesan Office of Real Property.

The church opened in 1860 and closed in 1994 due to a steep decline of parishioners, a problem seen by many city churches as more and more families moved to the suburbs. Since then, the building has aged. One internal column is tarnished by a steady leak in the roof. A number of the windows are broken, though many are protected by clear plastic. Parts of the outside wall are being held up by wood and bolts.

Last year, a report commissioned by the Historic Albany Foundation found it would be cheaper to repair the church, at $445,000 than to tear it down, at $500,000.

Besides, no one wanted to see the building demolished. City officials, civic groups and local residents all talked about finding a use -- a library or an African-American heritage museum were just two of the suggestions.

But nothing came of it until the Abates got involved.

Originally from Italy, Elda and her husband have lived in Troy since 1973. Mario Abate, trained to be a chef in Italy, made money as a plumber at first. In 1978, he and his wife opened their first restaurant in Troy. A bar and nightclub soon followed, along with other purchases in Troy and Albany.

Today, running the business is a family affair. The younger Elda and Mario have been promised the church as their responsibility. Elda, an aspiring actress, gave up classes in New York City to help set it up.

``We can do anything,'' she said. ``We're going to rock Albany.''

On Friday, neighbors were thrilled to hear the news.

``This is wonderful,'' said Virginia Poyer, who lives across the street. She went to the church for years. Her son sang in the choir and went to the church's school. A fountain in the park next to the church was dedicated to her husband, George.

``I've lived in Arbor Hill all my life,'' she said, standing at the black iron fence and looking up at the soaring church towers. ``It's like a prayer.''