October 28, 2015

Restoring the grandeur of a historic church in Charleston

When the members of St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church began building their church on Charleston’s main square in 1868, the city was still recovering from the devastation of the Civil War. Bricks from burnedout buildings formed St. Matthew’s façade, which remained the tallest building in all of South Carolina for a century and is still Charleston’s tallest building.

In the more than 140 years since its construction, St. Matthew’s has survived an earthquake, a disastrous fire and Hurricane Hugo, all of which took a toll on the church. By the time the congregation decided to restore its sanctuary, the building was in great need of repairs. Plaster was falling from St. Matthew’s walls. The foundation sagged. The electrical, HVAC and sound systems were in disrepair. Architects even discovered a small tree growing from the roof. But the building’s status as a national historic landmark—in a city devoted to historic preservation— meant that the congregation had many hurdles to clear in order to bring the building back to its former glory.

St. Matthew’s raised $4 million for what started as a $6.5 million renovation project, and obtained a loan from the Mission Investment Fund for the remaining $1.5 million, only to discover an additional $2.5 million in unexpected problems. Contractors found termite damage and wood rot within the building. The copper on the steeple needed work. The congregation learned that 80 percent of the sanctuary’s exterior stucco needed replacing, not the 20 percent for which they’d originally budgeted. And the building needed an entirely new roof.

St. Matthew’s had chosen to finance its loan with the Mission Investment Fund instead of borrowing from a bank. MIF offered an advantage. “The Mission Investment Fund was able to increase the loan amount, and MIF’s experience working with construction challenges like these kept potential work delays to a minimum,” said the Rev. William Trexler, St. Matthew’s interim senior pastor.

The newly renovated sanctuary reopened in June 2015. “It just sparkles,” says congregation council member Janelle Othersen, in describing the refurbished space. “When you walk into the sanctuary, you are so aware of a higher being that it really humbles you.” Today, the plaster in St. Matthew’s sanctuary is once again pristine. Its stained glass shines. Its newly refurbished organ rings out loud and clear. (You can read more about this renovation project in MIF’s 2014 Annual Report.)

Now St. Matthew’s parishioners are renewed in their mission both to share their restored building with the community of Charleston and to use it as a catalyst for growing in ministry. “We have the excitement of being back in our sanctuary,” says congregation President Paul Wieters, “and now it’s time for us to take steps to become better Christians.”