St. Matthew’s reopens historic church building

St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church at 405 King St. reopened its sanctuary on June 28 after a two-year, $9 million renovation project.

For the past two years, the only sounds heard in the sanctuary at St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church were the pounding of hammers, the whir of power tools, and the voices of the many workers who were repairing, remaking and renovating this holy house of worship.

But on the last Sunday in June, the room was once again filled with sounds of joy and wonder as a brass ensemble, a pipe organ and an 63-voice choir heralded the reopening and rededication of the historic sanctuary on King Street across from Marion Square.

The “Service of Thanksgiving and Rededication” capped off a $9 million renovation project that was neither planned nor without its share of difficulties.

The last time parishioners worshiped in the sanctuary was June 30, 2013. At the time, they said they would probably be back in about a year.

The congregation had not been planning to undertake a major renovation of its main building, said the Rev. Dr. William Trexler, the church’s interim pastor. “The congregation had voted to renovate the parish hall and offices. The contractor went up on the roof of the Francis Marion to get an overview. They said, ‘Do you all realize you’ve got a tree growing out of your roof?’ ”

Because of moisture that had been seeping into the building, several small trees had taken root and sprouted out of the roof, Trexler said. “Rain had been coming in through the roof since Hurricane Hugo in 1989.”

The roof had indeed been repaired after the storm, but apparently not well enough to keep water from seeping in. The damage was extensive. Members turned their attention from the parish hall to the main building.

Each phase of the renovation work brought more surprises.

“When we redid the slate roof, we found out the parapet walls were basically rotten,” Trexler said. The steeple was deteriorating, tilting to one side. Inside the sanctuary, plaster was damaged and some of the ornamental figurines were falling apart. A one-pound plaster fleur de lis ornament broke off during a sermon and fell to the floor. The beams holding up the balcony were being gnawed away by termites.

Because St. Matthew’s is a designated historic landmark, it had to be fixed, not changed. The present building at 405 King St. was dedicated in 1872 and in addition to Hurricane Hugo, it has withstood the earthquake of 1886 and a very damaging fire in 1965. Burn marks from the 1965 fire can be seen on one foot of the pedestal for the elevated pulpit.

In the renovations just completed, repairs were made to the roof, the walls and foundation. The building was fitted with new electrical wiring and a new heating and air conditioning system. LED lights have made the sanctuary much brighter. There’s a new sound system and closed-circuit TV cameras, and there are plans to offer live-streaming of worship services on the Internet, Trexler said.

During the rededication service, the bishop of the South Carolina Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Rev. Dr. Herman Yoos, moved to the baptismal font, then to the pulpit and finally to the altar, blessing each item in turn and setting them apart for service to God.

When he addressed the congregation, Yoos spoke of the June 17 massacre at Emanuel AME Church, which had taken place 11 days earlier in a church about two blocks away. Nine people were killed after a Bible study in a slaying authorities have said was racially motivated. All the victims were black and the man accused of killing them is white.

The event was still looming large in everyone’s mind. Even during the rededication service, a banner saying, “We are united in Christ” was hanging on the exterior of St. Matthew’s education building as a sign of solidarity with Emanuel AME Church.

“This past tragic week, we’ve learned a lesson of forgiveness from the nine families,” Yoos said. “It’s a lesson that we need to take to heart. It’s a lesson of forgiveness and reconciliation made possible by God’s grace that moves us forward as a community, as a state and as a nation.”

The bishop said he wanted to remind everyone of the words of forgiveness that the family members spoke to the accused killer. “I pray that we all will have that spirit of forgiveness that comes from our Lord Jesus Christ,” Yoos said.

Recognizing St. Matthew’s 174 years of mission in the city, Charleston Mayor Joe Riley had issued a proclamation setting aside June 28 as Rededication Day for the congregation.

“We were expecting to have Mayor Riley with us,” one of the speakers told the congregation. “But we know he is tending to the heart of our city as we speak.” The mayor’s proclamation was instead read aloud.

The service drew 673 attendees, Trexler said. Many traveled for miles.

“There were people here with tears in their eyes. There were elderly people who can’t usually attend, but their relatives made sure they got here.”

During the two years of renovation, regular weekly services were held in a parish hall. Two Easter services were held at Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim Synagogue on Hasell Street. Trexler said the services in the parish hall had brought the members of the congregation closer together because the room was more intimate. Chairs were set up in the round and people were facing each other.

“There were people concerned about what would happen when we moved from that intimate setting and back into the transcendent one,” Trexler said. To help folks stay connected with each other, Trexler has allowed for about 15 minutes before the start of the regular Sunday service during which people are encouraged to chat.

In addition to the fresh look and the modern lighting and sound system in the sanctuary, the congregation also has installed a columbarium at the rear of the main building so members can have their funeral urns stored in one of its niches rather than at the church cemetery.

And members are looking for ways to share the building with the community, Trexler said. “We don’t want to just use this beautiful space on Sunday mornings. We want it to be used all week long.”