Rebuilding for future

Pastor Robert Wallace of St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church says the church is scheduled for a multimillion-dollar renovation project to repair some obvious and not-so-obvious structural defects in the King Street building.

If they did nothing, the building might crumble before long.

Bits and pieces already are coming down: An ornamental plaster seraphim recently broke loose from a high column in the northeast corner of the sanctuary, a symbolic event that perhaps warns of more fallen angels if St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church isn’t restored.

The $6.2 million renovation of one of Charleston’s historic buildings at 405 King St. has given the St. Matthew’s congregation, about 1,200 strong, reason to reflect on the past and future, to affirm its faith and mission, sense of community and obligations to others.

One month after the church council approved the plan, more than $3 million already has been pledged by church members, a sign that the people of St. Matthew’s are determined to save their sanctuary.

But strengthened bricks and mortar are merely a means to an end, the Rev. Robert Wallace and several others said. For here is an opportunity for this generation to secure the church and all that it does for future generations, and for the wider community.

Outreach long has been an essential part of St. Matthew’s purpose, but teaching often is made more effective when done in a classroom, and food distribution is easier with a pantry to store provisions.

Besides, this is a church whose congregations always have shown determination to maintain a vibrant worship space.

The church was built in the aftermath of the Civil War, beginning in 1868, after Union forces had taken control of the city to oversee reconstruction, Wallace said.

The hurricane of August 1885 twisted the spire and compromised the structure. The Great Earthquake of August 1886 cracked the walls and further compromised the integrity of the building.

Work had to be done to fix it. But there were more disasters to come.

In 1965, the sanctuary burned so fiercely that it blew the roof off the place. A wood floor caught fire, creating a chimney effect that sent flames straight up, destroying the pews and organ but sparing the stained-glass windows.

And so the church was rebuilt. Then came Hugo. In 1989, the hurricane blew through Charleston, damaging the roof and spire. Once again, St. Matthew’s was forced by nature to engage the contractors.

Since then, the structure has deteriorated.

When architecture firms were consulted in August 2011 about making repairs to the parish house building, it was discovered that the roof of the sanctuary was retaining water.

“We became aware of a significant problem,” more urgent than all others, said Wallace. “So the focus shifted from the parish house to the sanctuary.”

A capital campaign soon was launched, and on March 11, the congregation voted unanimously to proceed with the multimillion-dollar project, which will include repairs to the roof, walls and foundation, as well as the renovation of the building’s electrical and sound systems, drainage improvement and structural reinforcement.

Steve Nichols, council vice president and a member of the church finance committee, said bank loans will enable the church to proceed quickly with the project while member pledges, committed over a five-year period, will go a long way in paying the bills.

Because St. Matthew’s is a historic landmark, the congregation is obligated to repair it; it can’t replace it with something new (which would cost much more anyway). But no one ever entertained anything other than full restoration, Nichols said.

“The foundation of St. Matthew’s has always been worship and music in that worship space,” he said. “And the stabilizing of that sanctuary really stabilizes St. Matthew’s as a whole and really allows us to move forward with those outreach programs and other things we hope to continue.”

During the work phase of the project, a converted auditorium will serve as the worship space, Nichols and Wallace said.

Mary Ivester, a church historian and member of the congregation since 1950, said losing the building never has been an option.

In 1965, while the flames were chewing through the roof and firefighters were flooding the sanctuary with water, members of the church council got together and decided then and there to rebuild, Ivester said. Construction lasted three years, almost as long as it took to build the original church.

Ivester, who is 85, grew up in Walhalla, a town in Oconee County in the northwest corner of the state. So did her husband, Julius, who died in 1999. The couple moved to Charleston in 1949 so he could attend medical school.

Turns out there is a strong link between Walhalla and St. Matthew’s. The town was founded in the midst of nearly 18,000 acres of land purchased for $27,000 in 1849 by trustees of the German Colonization Society of Charleston, whose members mostly attended St. Matthew’s. The Colonization Society planned the town and the farms around it. Walhalla is named for the majestic hall in Norse mythology to which soldiers slain in battle are brought by the valkyries.

“There is still a close relationship between those people up there and the people down here,” Ivester said. “A number of the members of St. Matthew’s have ancestors who lived in Walhalla.” And former pastor Louis Mueller frequently visited the town.

On June 17, the congregation will worship in its sanctuary for the last time before work begins. They won’t return for about a year.

The Rev. Sarah Lang, associate pastor, said the price tag certainly was a point of debate: Was this the best use of that much money? But all decided that mission and outreach depended in part on a holy space where all could gather.

Lang’s husband, the Rev. Joseph Bolick, associate pastor in charge of the youth group, said, “The building gives us occasion to welcome the friend and serve many different people for many different reasons.”

The fundraising process includes many visits with church members, a lot of questions about cost and procedure and “lots of telling and retelling of the (gospel) story of the loaves and fishes” which describes how Jesus fed thousands with five loaves of bread and two fish, Lang said.

Wallace said the enthusiasm with which church members have embraced the project shows how visionary they are.

“It represents a vision that what takes place here is greater than my lifespan, in the same way that God opened Abraham’s eyes that he would be a blessing to the nations,” said Wallace. “What we do enters into a greater expression of what God is doing. So it has fallen upon this expression of St. Matthew’s to care for the building for the sake of future generations.”

The next future generation includes 16-year-old Elizabeth Mappus, who perhaps expressed better than anyone what’s at stake.

“I have been a part of this church my whole life. I grew up here, going to church services, youth choir, Sunday school (and) Vacation Bible School as a kid,” Elizabeth wrote in an email.

“Right now, though, I am at a place in my life where I feel like I’m standing in the middle of a road; I can look ahead of me and see all these blurry, fantastic unknowns stretching into the distance, but at the same time, I can look behind me and still see all the great memories of being a kid. St. Matthew’s is in so many of those memories, it has meant so much. I mean, it’s where I said goodbye to my grandfather. And it’s comforting to know that while I’m continuing on this path I’m on, St. Matthew’s will always be there.”

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