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Former New York Yankees relief pitcher Mariano Rivera smiles at the ribbon cutting ceremony for the opening of his new church, Refugio de Esperanza (Refuge of Hope), with his wife, Clara Rivera, right, and Diana Santos, center, a member of the congregation, Thursday, March 6, 2014 in New Rochelle, N.Y. Being retired hasn't stopped Rivera from picking up one more save. A crumbling and long-vacant church on Thursday became the new home of a ministry led by the wife of the New York Yankees legend, following a $3 million restoration project funded by his foundation. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)
Baseball star Rivera rescues, renovates N.Y. church
First Published Mar 06 2014 09:47 am • Last Updated Mar 08 2014 08:29 pm

New Rochelle, N.Y. • Being retired hasn’t stopped Mariano Rivera from picking up one more save.

A crumbling and long-vacant church on Thursday became the new home of a ministry led by the wife of the New York Yankees legend, following a $3 million restoration project funded by his foundation.

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For years, Rivera had been crediting God for his skills on the field, where he tallied a record 652 saves before retiring last season. Now his foundation has poured about $3 million into restoring the 107-year-old church for Refugio de Esperanza, or Refuge of Hope, the Pentecostal Christian congregation led by his wife, Clara.

"It has been a privilege to fulfill a dream that God put in our hearts," Rivera said after the ribbon-cutting.

"We have prayed, we have worked and patiently we have waited for the exact moment when God has given the order to be here in this building," Clara Rivera said, addressing the crowd in Spanish accompanied by a translator. "On this day, it now becomes a reality."

The wildly popular former Yankee, 44, had been quiet about the project. Most residents walking by earlier this week did not even know he was involved.

But he briefly mentioned the opening of the church after receiving a humanitarian award from the Jackie Robinson Foundation on Monday.

"You don’t do it to be recognized," he said. "You do it because it comes from the heart. You want to please the Lord."

The gray stone building had been a Presbyterian church but was abandoned in the 1970s and was eventually bought by New Rochelle, a diverse city of about 77,000 just 6 miles north of the Bronx. The church is next door to the police and courts headquarters, and police had used some of the space to store evidence, said architect Jonathan Villani.

Meanwhile, his wife’s congregation had been outgrowing its meeting place — the Rivera home. Rivera told New York magazine last year, "We only fit like 50 people, 60 people tops."

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"We have whites, we have blacks, we have Hispanics," he said. "We have all kinds. It doesn’t matter. As long as you love Christ, we in it. And if you don’t love him, we will work with you so we put you on the right path."

The congregation’s website says it "felt the need to organize a local church that would not only present the message of salvation to its attendees, but also provide programs that would meet the needs of the less fortunate in the community." Plans call for a "learning center" that will provide education, sports and other after-school programs for children.

"He’s doing something not just for his faith but at the same time setting up a place where he can help kids," said Brandon Steiner, a Rivera business partner whose sports memorabilia firm is headquartered in New Rochelle.

Steiner said he’s never seen Rivera so focused on a project.

"He was like the general contractor," Steiner said, laughing. "He was in there directing painters."

The city agreed to sell the building to Rivera for $1 in return for his promise to rehabilitate it. One opponent at the time, City Councilman Louis Trangucci, said Wednesday he still feels the city should have tried to get more for the property. But he said the project has only enhanced the area "and I support what Mariano had done with the church."

Mayor Noam Bramson said the city did not have the money it would have taken to save the building.

Villani said the church needed plenty of work: The bell tower had begun collapsing, and a new front wall needed to be built and new stained glass windows installed.

"We loved the stonework, and some of the inside beams were still in good condition," he said.

Across the street at Kenny’s Barbershop, Carlos Sanchez has been watching the renovation every day.

"It looks a lot better," the barber said. He even met Rivera at the site several times.

"He’s a cool guy," Sanchez said. "And look what he’s doing, a new church in the neighborhood."

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