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Renovations at St. Matthew's Lutheran Church press on with community support

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CHARLESTON, SC (WCSC) -

Behind the towers of scaffolding and dark plastic wrapping that mask St. Matthew's Lutheran Church are dozens of construction workers, committed to bringing the aging and dilapidated sanctuary back to life.

Renovations of the St. Matthew's Lutheran Church sanctuary at 405 King Street began in September 2013, but the initial idea was presented roughly three years ago.

Biemann Othersen, President of the Congregational Council at the church, says architecture firms were called in to inspect the church after signs of wear and tear became visible on the building next to the sanctuary. But one of the firms noticed an even more glaring issue after looking at the church from the roof of a nearby parking garage.

"When MCA Architecture came and made their presentation they said, 'We don't know why you're looking at this building, because your sanctuary needs a lot of work,'" Biemann recalled.

Torn shingles, holes in the roof, and water damage were just some of the issues architects discovered while inspecting the sanctuary. The initial estimate for the sanctuary renovations was set at $6.2 million with a completion date of November 2014, according to a capital campaign document drafted in 2012.

Those numbers would quickly change.

“We were pretty much on target until we had the stucco problem,” says Janelle Othersen, who is the chair of the renovation committee.

Janelle says workers were removing a protective, waterproof covering from the walls – the coating was added during an earlier renovation as a safeguard, but ended up keeping water that had leaked in through the roof inside the walls – when they decided to check on the strength of the stucco on the outside of the building.

“They were checking the stucco around the building by slightly tapping it, as it was adhered to the bricks, and it just started crumbling,” says Janelle. “The more they tapped, the more it crumbled.”

Plans initially called for the replacement of roughly 20 percent of the stucco, but that number has since grown to 80 percent.

The setback caused a major hit to both their estimated costs and construction timeline. Janelle says they now estimate the total figure to hit $7 million, with completion tentatively set for April 2015.

To fund this major renovation, which includes $1.37 million in interior repairs and a $1.274 million HVAC replacement, St. Matthews has received an outpouring of support from its congregation.

According to Biemann, the congregation has agreed to raise $4 million over a five year period, while the rest of the money will come from a loan from a mission investment firm.

Biemann says that while it would have been cheaper to level the historical church and rebuild a new modern sanctuary in its place, the history of the building was too much to lose.

St. Matthew's Lutheran Church was built just years after the Civil War, withstood the devastating earthquake of 1886, suffered damage from a major fire in 1965, and stood strong against the winds and rain of Hurricane Hugo in 1989. Each time undergoing repairs, never reconstruction.

“It is a history of sacrifice,” says Biemann. “It has been a big obligation for the congregation to maintain this building. We wouldn’t think of tearing it down.”

As construction churns along at the sanctuary, the congregation has moved their worship into the Sunday school building next door. Jammed into an indoor basketball court/auditorium, weekly service is now held “in the round,” with a podium centered in the room.

Despite the new challenges, Janelle says the transition has been smooth, and support from the congregation – as well as the community – has been positive.

“Other downtown churches have offered their sanctuaries for weddings, for funerals, any kind of special service,” said Janelle. “They’ve called and said ‘if you need our facility and we aren’t using it, you can have it.’”

Assistance even came from some more unlikely sources, such as when Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim on Hassell Street allowed St. Matthew’s to use their synagogue on Easter.

“During the Easter service, I was in the back ushering people, and a family came in that was visiting from Israel,” Biemann remembered, laughter beginning to spill out. “They were astounded to see service going on on Easter Sunday. They couldn’t believe it!”

But that is what it is all about, says Biemann. Everyone coming together during a time of need to provide assistance when needed.

With weekly worship and events bouncing around downtown Charleston, the sanctuary at St. Matthew’s is receiving a much needed face lift. The stucco will be replaced. The roof, once a shredded mess, is in the process of getting seven layers worth of shingles and protection. Damaged interior walls are being replaced, and it is being outfitted with a new sound system and LED lights.

The renovations will return St. Matthew’s to its days of glory – to something greater – which should continue on for generations to come.

“As our architect said,” Janelle recalled. “This is not a sanctuary. It is a cathedral.”

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