As Charleston's Emanuel AME Church prepares to mark its bicentennial next year, church leaders are beginning repairs to make sure their historic building lasts at least 100 years more.
That work — expected to cost more than $1 million — continued in dramatic fashion this week as its entire structure will be covered with colorful tarps so it can be fumigated to kill termites.
While Mother Emanuel has taken on a symbolic role after a self-avowed white supremacist killed nine parishioners there during a Bible study two years ago, it's like every other historic Charleston church in that it must struggle with ongoing maintenance issues and upgrades to meet modern needs. The big challenge now focuses on Emanuel's roof structure, which has been damaged by termites and rot.
Earlier this summer, parishioners in the balcony had to sit among carefully placed buckets to catch drips from a leaky roof, but those were patched in July, said the Rev. Eric S.C. Manning.
"Those roof leaks have been resolved," he said. "We're thankful the entire roof did not have to be replaced."
Structural engineer Craig Bennett began looking at Emanuel's building in 2012. He recommended the sanctuary not be occupied during severe winds, not only because of damage to its trusses but also because of their design.
"The trusses overall are under-sized for all the loads that they carry," he said. "But I think it’s important to note that is certainly common for buildings of this period, for historic buildings. It’s nothing unusual.”
Bennett said the over-stressed trusses have caused some balcony columns to move as much as 5 inches out of plumb.
Emanuel is far from the only Charleston church to suffer from a serious termite infestation. Around the corner, the Citadel Square Baptist Church had to close its main sanctuary for a few years because of termites, and a parishioner said he could even hear the bugs chewing away. Further down Calhoun Street, Bethel United Methodist Church needed more than $3 million in repairs after termites struck its roof trusses.
Emanuel held its regular service Sunday and all the termite tarps will be removed by later this week — in plenty of time for services this coming Sunday, Manning said.
The church already has tackled two other upgrades, including an elevator addition that makes the historic sanctuary more handicapped-accessible and a new Empowerment Center that opened next door late last year. The center provides counseling and other support to survivors and victims' relatives of the 2015 mass shooting.
With that work done, Emanuel is launching two even higher profile campaigns: a new memorial for victims of the attack and significant repairs and upgrades to the historic church. Emanuel is considered the oldest African Methodist Episcopal church in the South.
Manning said Emanuel is working with Bennett on the planned repairs, which will include shoring up the roof. The exact nature of the structural work — and a more precise cost — is still being decided, he said, adding that more repairs might become apparent during the work.
"It's expensive (work) to do, and we will never see it," Manning said. "You're not going to see it unless you go up in the attic."
Meanwhile, the church also is proceeding with a new memorial to mark the shooting. Michael Arad, a partner at Handel Architects in New York City and a designer of the National September 11 Memorial and Museum, was selected and has begun by meeting with survivors and victims' families.
Manning said the church has created two separate nonprofits to receive contributions for both the church repairs and memorial: the Historic Mother Emanuel AME Church Fund and the Mother Emanuel Memorial Foundation. Both nonprofits will be run by separate boards. Manning and The Beach Co. President John Darby are co-chairing the memorial fund while the church fund is still being set up.
Manning said the structure will ensure donors to those causes won't see their money co-mingled with the church's operation. The hope is that Emanuel will be able to remain open for services during the structural work, though some sections might have to be covered or closed temporarily.
Once those repairs are done, additional work also could include new exterior painting, improved restrooms and kitchen space on the ground floor, and even refurbishing pews.
While Manning said he hasn't lost any sleep over the needs so far, he said more anxious times might be in store once the repair work and its expense comes more into focus.
He said the biggest challenge is simply trying to attend to the repairs and the planned memorial while not neglecting Emanuel's real business.
"You have to deal with the physical structure, and you have to deal with future needs," he said. "You also have to be mindful that this is a church and the ministry of proclaiming the gospel has to be paramount."
Communicating the complexities of the evolving projects and their financing also is one of the biggest challenges, he said.
"We always have to cling to our faith and our hope," he said. "We're not required to see. We're required to have faith."