The bell at St. Matthew’s Lutheran, inside its soaring 255-foot steeple on Marion Square, summons the city’s faithful and fallen as it has for more than a century.

In those years, church visitors have included the homeless and hurting, global tourists and business folks, college students and the city’s night life. Among others.

Some come to rest. Others come to grieve, repent or offer joyful thanks.

A few just wanted to know the best place to eat nearby.

A similar scene plays out across Marion Square at Citadel Square Baptist.

Through more than a century of Charleston heat, hurricanes, earthquakes and fires, both historic churches have welcomed people seeking architectural beauty — and the presence of God.

“We are a presence of Christ to our neighbors,” said the Rev. Robert Wallace of St. Matthew’s. “Our sanctuary conveys a sense of awe that gives permission to share stories of sorrow and of joy. The gift of architecture becomes the means through which this conversation takes place.”

Yet, the fiscal burden of refurbishing the two sanctuaries, both for their members and for the larger community, has become the financial yoke of the aging congregations.

Both pastors say it’s worth the cost.

“The church is not its members,” Wallace said. “The church is its presence.”

Mission field

Between the two churches stretches Marion Square, a bustling cross-section of tourists on foot, students on bikes and folks lingering on a wide green space between fountains and gardens.

If Charleston has a central square, surely this is it.

When the Rev. David Walker and his wife moved to town eight years ago, they stayed in a hotel at first. The new pastor of Citadel Square realized something key.

“We can touch the world from 328 Meeting Street,” he told his wife.

Today, he wishes he had hung a map to mark the homelands of visitors to the church: England, Australia, India, Germany ...

“There are so many people God brings here,” Walker said.

He recalled two homeless men traveling together who stopped in Charleston for a spell and came to Citadel Square’s services. The church helped the men wash, receive care and hear the Gospel.

The men moved on.

But Walker still prays the church planted a seed of faith.

He tries to plant seeds locally, too. The CSO Gospel Choir, Piccolo Spoleto and other groups have used the church’s space. And the church offers free pictures and phone calls for Cooper River Bridge Run participants.

After all, refurbishing a sanctuary isn’t just about preserving history.

“We’re not in it for preservation. We’re in it for transformation,” Walker said. “We want to see lives transformed.”

Being a neighbor

It was a damp, chilly Sunday last fall when a woman entered St. Matthew’s sanctuary shortly before the early service.

She and her husband were on a much-anticipated vacation, she said, and were staying at the Francis Marion Hotel next door.

But the evening before, he’d suffered a heart attack. That morning, he would undergo open-heart surgery.

So, the pastors prayed, and later visited the couple at the hospital.

A week later, shortly after the man was discharged, the couple came to worship.

The congregation prayed again, this time for healing and thanks.

Others visitors have stopped in from as far as Sweden, Egypt, Hong Kong and South Korea.

St. Matthew’s also has a 70-year tradition of offering musical performances to the community. Ashley Hall, MUSC, MOJA, Piccolo Spoleto and others use its sanctuary.

“One of our spiritual DNA stories is that of being a neighbor,” Wallace said.

After the earthquake of 1886, St. Matthew’s helped deliver supplies to residents congregated in Marion Square. And after Hurricane Hugo, its auditorium was used to hold and distribute supplies.

“We feel obligated to our descendants, but also to everyone here in the community,” said Dr. H. Biemann Othersen, whose family has worshipped at St. Matthew’s for nearly 100 years.

When renovations are complete, St. Matthew’s plans to form a team to welcome visitors into their “oasis of grace.”

“This building is a gift because its beauty offers a chance for sharing,” Wallace said. “And what can happen in that moment can affect lives.”

Reach Jennifer Hawes at 937-5563, follow her on Twitter at @JenBerryHawes or subscribe to her at facebook.com/jennifer.b.hawes.