Divine intervention

Charleston Mayor Joe Riley (at podium) and dozens of Redeemer Presbyterian Church leaders and preservation and religious leaders gathered in Redeemer’s sanctuary Friday to ask for donations to help ensure the historic Greek Revival building remains a church.

If the current congregation inside the historic church at 43 Wentworth St. can raise the $1.6 million to buy the property, then it would get a conservation easement to ensure the church would never be converted into a home.

That’s what the Rev. Craig Bailey of Redeemer Presbyterian Church said Friday as he, Charleston Mayor Joe Riley and other preservation and religious leaders launched a fund drive.

The former St. Andrew’s Lutheran Church and its educational building were poised to be sold to a local businesswoman who planned to renovate them into residences and office space. Currently, Redeemer only leases the space.

When Charleston City Councilman Blake Hallman pushed to repeal a zoning variance, then the buyer, St. Andrew’s and others struck a compromise to postpone the sale and give Redeemer a few months to try to raise the $1.6 million sales price.

“Being the last congregation in this building is not a designation we desire,” Bailey said. “We don’t want to say we were the last congregation to sing ‘Silent Night’ here.”

Redeemer’s leaders earlier ruled out buying the property when its asking price was $8 million, then $4 million, but Bailey said the $1.6 million figure might be within reach of his young congregation — especially with help from the larger community.

Riley urged others to support the effort vocally and financially.

“We have to seize this opportunity and save this church,” he said, adding it could be seen as a watershed moment in the city’s long preservation history.

Cress Darwin, pastor of Second Presbyterian Church less than a mile up Meeting Street, said the church at 43 Wentworth St. is far from the only case where a historic congregation in peninsular Charleston has struggled, but they can be saved with help from one another.

“The loss of a church is not just unfortunate,” he said. “The loss of a church has a profound impact on the fabric and integrity of a community.”

The Historic Charleston Foundation pledged $2,500 to kick-start the fund drive, and City Councilman Marvin Wagner, who grew up in the church, pledged another $1,000.

While that’s only a small fraction of the goal, organizers hope to find broad-based support in the community among those interested.

Evan Thompson of Charleston’s Preservation Society, which is collecting the donations, said: “It’s not just what buildings look like on the outside that’s important, but what they’re like on the inside. It’s just like people.”

John Hildreth, director of the National Trust’s Southern Office in Charleston, said the issue of saving historic downtown churches has come up in many other U.S. cities, such as Chicago, Los Angeles, New Orleans and Boston.

“What’s different is we now have leadership here that wasn’t evident in other cities,” he said.

The Greek Revival building was built as a Methodist church around 1840, but it merged with a Lutheran congregation and changed to that denomination shortly after the Civil War. St. Andrew’s congregation moved to West Ashley around 2006 and since has leased the building to Redeemer Presbyterian.

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.