A Sunderland charity is bringing a historic building back to life as a vital community hub for the local area.

The MICC Chapel of Light International took over the Grade 2 listed former St Columba’s Church on Cornhill Road in Southwick in 2012 and has since launched a social enterprise to make it financially self-sustainable for years to come.

The charity has been running different activities for people in the community, including toddler groups, music clubs, employability training, a food bank and a gym, as well as providing computer and internet access to help support start-up businesses.

However, the building – which was one of the places Princess Diana visited when she came to Sunderland in 1990 – was left with significant problems after it had previously been allowed to become run down.

Reverend Dr Peter Adegbie is leading the group who are aiming to preserve its long-term future.

Peter, who is originally from Nigeria, started his career in the television industry, which he worked in for ten years. But after receiving the call of God, he left the industry to become a missionary.

After completing bible school, he worked in Uganda, Kenya and Cameroon, before moving to a parish in Sunderland.

Peter said: “When we bought the building, we didn’t know it was listed as a national treasure.

“In that building is the largest collection of James Eadie Reid art in the UK, numerous Sunderland glass artists have their work included in the stained-glass windows and there is a piece of stone from the 6th century that was part of the cottage where St Columba lived on the island of Iona.”

Having been left empty for two years, the charity was keen to put the building back on the map as a place where people want to come and visit.

With the help of the North East BIC and the National Heritage Lottery Fund, Historic England, Benefact Trust and other funders, they began to create a development plan to allow the church to become a resource for the city.

“The BIC has really been helpful in supporting us with the plan and challenging us when we need it,” said Peter.

“When Covid happened, we had to redefine the entire plan and the BIC was willing to go above and beyond. They helped us work out how to create a digital presence and engage with people who could not come out of their houses.

“That made us think about how we could create a digital resource from what we have that people from all over the world can access. With some funding from Historic England we created an artistic website to give a flavour of interpretation of the paintings in the church www.stcolumbaheritage.co.uk

“The BIC has opened up many doors for us with partner organisations and we are now looking to the future to see all our plans become a reality and for the building to be a key part of that.”

As part of the overall plan, MICC Chapel of Light International set up a Community Interest Company (CIC), The Friendship Place, to create a stay and play café and in January 2022 they secured funding to be able to trial the initiative from the UK Community Renewal Fund. The success of this pilot demonstrated the need for a project like this in the community.

Currently on a break over the winter months, the group are working on renovating part of the premises that house the stay and play café to allow them to accommodate 50 mothers and children, rather than the 20 they could cater for before.

“We are trying to develop a multi-purpose hall that allows local businesses to rent space to operate from,” added Peter. “We’d like to have a café or restaurant and a purpose built creche and nursery.

“The BIC has put us in a very strong position, and we are building the partnerships with several organisations to allow us to achieve what we want to.

“We also received funding from the Heritage Lottery towards resilience tests of the charity and the building. This has allowed us to get to a position where we have planning approval from the council for some of the modifications we want to do to the listed building.

“We are now talking to funders and getting interested stakeholders involved, as well as seeing how we fit into the city council’s plans for the future.”

The BIC offers a unique package of workspace, business support, events and a network of entrepreneurs.

Kevin Marquis, social enterprise manager at the North East BIC, said: “It has been great to work with Peter and his colleagues in trying to secure the future of this magnificent building and to bring new projects into the heart of the community.

“We have a well-established support team here at the BIC and as a social enterprise ourselves, we share the ambition of purpose-led enterprises to make change happen within our local communities and we wish MICC Chapel of Light International all the best with future projects.”