For more than a century, the St. Matthew’s Lutheran and Citadel Square Baptist churches have stood at opposite ends of Marion Square. Their slender steeples have helped define the Holy City’s skyline.

Today, both churches represent more than Charleston’s rich religious heritage.

They’re also symbols of the challenges facing downtown congregations as they balance their religious mission with the costly demands of preserving and maintaining historic buildings.

Both sanctuaries are empty and expect to remain that way as repair work continues for at least a year.

St. Matthew’s

Three years ago, St. Matthew’s congregation was looking at improvements to its parish hall when an architect vying for that work called church leaders to the top of the nearby Francis Marion Hotel.

Janelle Othersen of the church’s building committee recalled the architect asked a simple question: “Do you all realize you have small trees growing out of the roof of your church?”

They did not, and the church’s leadership did an about-face and focused on rehabilitating its sanctuary, built shortly after the Civil War.

The trees were but one sign that the church’s post-Hurricane Hugo roof was failing and channeling moisture down the walls.

Senior pastor Robert Wallace said the church still looked pretty good, so informing the congregation about the extent of the problem was a challenge.

“Three years ago, you had a little bit of peeling paint but nothing of the kind of obvious symptoms,” he said. “That was part of the conversation: There were problems much more severe than the problems meeting the eye.”

But the building would drop hints that it needed help, including a one-pound plaster fleur de lis ornament that broke off during a sermon and fell to the floor.

The church spent a year investigating the building’s condition and determined it needed improvements to the roof, exterior walls, heating and air system, electrical system, clock and organ wiring: almost $7 million in total. It spent another year trying to raise the money and currently has $4.1 million in pledges and a loan from the Mission Investment Fund of the Lutheran Church, enough to start work.

Last Sunday, the congregation marched out of the sanctuary and into the fellowship hall, where they will meet for the next 12 to 14 months.

St. Matthew’s has weathered tough times in the past. A 1965 fire caused its steeple to topple into King Street, and the congregation met under scaffolding during post-Hurricane Hugo repairs.

Dr. Biemann Othersen, president of St. Matthew’s, said it will weather this project, too.

“It would be cheaper to tear this whole building down and build a little church out in the suburbs where most of our people live,” he said, “but it’s not the right thing to do.”

Citadel Square

Across Marion Square, the Citadel Square Baptist congregation has been unable to use its sanctuary for its regular Sunday worship services for about three years, mostly because of termite damage in the roof.

Pastor David Walker said the termites are long gone, but the repair work only recently began.

The project, being done by Bill Chivers Construction, includes attaching steel beams to the suspect wooden trusses.

Once that’s done, the building will get a new shingled roof. That, and fixing leaks elsewhere on the church’s property, are expected to cost about $500,000. The congregation, which averages about 70 on Sundays, has pledged about $300,000.

The church expects that work to finish in a month, but it has other repairs to make before it can move back, including replacing its broken heating and air conditioning system and examining the balcony and other parts of the building for termite damage, he said.

Also, some of the ornamental plaster has broken off the ceiling and walls and needs to be inspected and repaired.

There are no cost estimates on this other work, Walker said.

He said the church is blessed because it has not run into major construction issues in addition to the ones already known. Still, it’s unclear when the congregation can move back in.

“Everyone enjoys being able to be in the sanctuary, in the historic place of worship,” he said. “But as a smaller congregation, it’s somewhat of a blessing to be in our chapel. It has more of a family feel.”

Wider issues

The Preservation Society of Charleston has noted many downtown historic churches are suffering from deferred maintenance, as their congregations dwindle and building codes increase.

Both Grace Episcopal and Bethel United Methodist churches have had to move services elsewhere in recent years while their sanctuaries received multimillion-dollar repairs.

The French Huguenot Church also celebrated the recent completion of a major makeover, one triggered by structural damage from a nearby dig.

Others, such as the New Tabernacle Fourth Baptist Church, have not begun needed work. But there are success stories, too. Redeemer Presbyterian Church was able to find money to buy its historic church home on Wentworth Street.

The challenge goes beyond brick and mortar.

“What I’m trying to do, and what the congregation is trying to do, is recognize we’re called to the mission field, not just preservation,” Walker said. “As lives are transformed, God will take care of the needs of the buildings.”

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.