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Historic downtown church may become home; Members keeping their faith

Julian Keil Julian Keil

CHARLESTON, SC (WCSC) - The St. Andrew's Lutheran Church on Wentworth Street in downtown Charleston could be under new ownership in the coming weeks. The church has held a continuous congregation since it was built in 1839, two decades before the Civil War began. 

But, if a bid for $1.6 million is accepted, the church may soon become a private home.

"If I was invited over for dinner, I don't think I could come. It would grieve me so deeply," said Redeemer Presbyterian church member Kathy Bailey. 

Bailey, along with 200 members of the Presbyterian congregation are in limbo.

When St. Andrew's Lutheran congregation dissolved five years ago, Redeemer Presbyterian was granted a temporary lease of the two-story pre-Civil War church.

When the "young and vibrant" Redeemer church and it's members moved in, the Lutheran ownership put the church on the market.

"The sale price on the building went from $8 million to $4.5 million. Then it was about $3 million," said church member Nancy Vinson.

That is until a private buyer made a $1.6 million bid.

The leaders at Redeemer Presbyterian have been watching the price of their temporary home, but said they never made an offer because it was out of their price range.

When they found out the price dropped, coupled with the private bidder's plan to convert the church into her personal residence, they jumped into action.

"We care. We care about right and wrong," said Bailey, referencing the 1840's-era church becoming someone's home. "Of all places, Charleston should be guarding and protecting that more than any other city I know. I'm shocked."

 

'RESTORATION IS MY PASSION'

Nancy Snowden's father was a builder. Her love for architecture came from years of watching her father on job sites. Snowden's career path didn't follow her father's but she still had the itch to work on and restore historic properties.

Her list of properties that she's purchased and restored continues to grow.

From East Bay to Anson Street, Society to Tradd. Snowden has now completed the restoration of seven homes.

Her most recent project was a former Church on Society Street. The building began as a German Catholic Church that transformed into Veteran's of Foreign War post over the last few years until Snowden picked up the tab.

When she saw a second church property on Wentworth go up for sale, she waited for the right time to make an offer.

"I want to preserve this historic building," said Snowden. "I'm a restorationist. I buy and bring back beautiful homes."

 

KEEPING THE FAITH

The Redeemer Presbyterian congregation has moved three times since it was originally planted on James Island in 1999.

After five years, they say the St. Andrew's Lutheran church has evolved into their home.

Nancy Vinson says the church is involved in feeding and clothing the needy on a monthly basis. They have adopted a neighborhood downtown for upkeep and they actively tutor students who don't have another place to turn.

Vinson says the Redeemer's members understand a building is just a building, but they have come to cherish the lot on Wentworth because of it's history and want it to remain a church for years to come.

Redeemer Presbyterian made a bid of $1 million that was rejected soon after Snowden laid her cards on the table.

Now, they've upped the ante.

The congregation is matching Snowden's $1.6 million offer, but are asking for 90 to 120 days to raise the money locally to make good on their bid.

"We're just waiting to see what He (God) wants to do," said Bailey.  "We're being faithful stewards of what we've been given and the opportunity we've been given."

But time may be running out on the 'portable Presbyterians.'

The Charleston zoning board granted Snowden a variance approval, Tuesday, to convert the church into two live/work units in the fellowship hall.

The variance puts Snowden one step closer to signing the deed to the 6,000 square foot building.

 

VOICES FROM THE CHOIR

Barbara Keil and her husband, Julian, are former members of St. Andrew's Lutheran Church before the congregation moved out of downtown Charleston and into West Ashley.

The Keil's have been following the attempted sale of the church for some time now and have concerns about the fellowship hall being replaced by sofas and skylights.

"I just couldn't imagine a private citizen would possibly do this to a church," said Keil. "What's going to happen to other downtown churches if this is allowed to happen?"

Her thoughts are echoed by many of the current members of the Redeemer congregation who worship there on Sundays.

 

WHOLE LOT OF HOLY WORK TO DO

"If you go on the top of the parking garage on Wentworth, you can see the roof is settling in," says Snowden, who has already had a handful of inspections done on the church.

She says the renovations to the church will most likely cost upwards of $3 million if she gets approved to move in.

Snowden said the roof is collapsing in slowly, the foundation has issues, and the heating, air conditioning and electrical system need to be completely re-wired to be brought up to code.

"These are all things that can be fixed," said Snowden. "What I want to do is preserve this building. It needs work and maintenance and I'm not sure how long the congregation can do that given the chance."

Snowden says she's worked very hard with the Ansonborough Neighborhood Association, who she believes is very protective when it comes to Charleston's storied history.

She says hopefully her hard work will pay off in eventually purchasing and renovating the home. She says she's also a "God-loving person" but says if the St. Andrew's Lutheran Church isn't properly upgraded, it may be lost forever.

"I wish them well," said Snowden. "If God blesses them with an angel investor in their congregation and they're able to purchase the property then it was meant to be."

But, if not, Snowden has her floor plan ready and her restoration crews on stand-by. 

"I will take very good care of that property," she said. "This is my passion."

Copyright 2012 WCSC. All rights reserved.

 
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