German Immersion school board votes to demolish old St. Andrew's Church

A charter school voted to raze the old St. Andrews church building, much to the neighborhood's distress.

A charter school voted to raze the old St. Andrews church building, much to the neighborhood's distress. Save Historic St. Andrews

When Marietta McCullough looks at the old St. Andrew's Church building in St. Paul's Como Park, she sees her time there as a student. She remembers days on the playground and ice cream socials. She remembers parishioners who are no longer alive. She remembers an era when church, she says, had more of a gravitational pull -- a community importance.

St. Andrew's, at 1051 Como Avenue in St. Paul, hasn’t had a congregation since 2011, when the diocese shut it down. It got a second life as a makeshift gym and cafeteria for the adjoining public charter, Twin Cities German Immersion School. Even if it’s not her church anymore, McCullough loves that building, which was built in 1927. She adores its bright orange tiles and its three bell towers. She prays to its eponymous saint.

But soon, St. Andrew's will be torn to the ground. German Immersion’s running out of room. Its ranks have swollen from 330 in 2013 by more than 200 students, and it’s expecting 600 by 2021.

Last year, school leaders converted a computer lab into a classroom and had the younger kids take gym in the basement. Scheduling and space is getting to be a hassle, and St. Andrew’s columns, corners, and deafening acoustics had already made it a subpar gym. So, after months of deliberation, they decided to raze the old church last spring.

This prompted outcry from McCullough and her neighbors. The church was a historical gem and the heart of the neighborhood, they insisted -- whether people worshipped there or not. They rallied, circulated petitions and yard signs, and begged leadership to find another solution. The Save Historic St. Andrew's group was born, and the fight was on.

The following struggle pitted neighbors against neighbors -- one side accused of short-shrifting innocent children, the other accused of destroying the neighborhood’s heritage. School leadership said they sympathized with neighbors’ sentimental connections, but insisted there was no other option. Their hands were tied.

St. Andrew’s fate was staid in late May, when a last-minute option opened up. Central Lutheran School, about a mile south from the site, was struggling with finances and offering to sell. If German Immersion could move its middle school grades to the new site and keep the grade school kids in the current building, perhaps it could manage its space issues until a newer, bigger building could be found.

There it was, when they needed it most: a Hail Mary pass.

“It was a sudden opportunity that seemed to make so much sense,” neighbor Anna Mosser says. Central Lutheran had fields, playgrounds, plenty of room -- what more could German Immersion want?

But when the board called a special meeting on July 30, the bubble burst. The board voted to demolish the church 6-1. The finances just didn’t make sense, Executive Director Ted Anderson says. Like St. Andrew's, Central Lutheran is an old building, in need of upkeep and repair. He estimated the extra costs at $170,000 a year: affordable for a year or two, but after that, a worm in the school’s budget surplus.

“It just became clear in late July that the numbers weren’t adding up,” he says.

It was settled. Construction -- and destruction -- would take place next summer. If the neighbors liked, leaders said, they could be part of the design process. Perhaps they could pay tribute to old St. Andrew’s.

There wasn’t a lot of debate or discussion after the decision was handed down. A few Save St. Andrew's folks got up and left early. By then, everyone had already said what there was to say.

Mosser wasn’t surprised, she says. She believes the school has been blowing off its neighbors the whole time, failing to engage them about the future of the building and include them in the solutions.

“The school is only accountable to itself, in a sense,” she says. “They have no acknowledgement of who the architect was, what neighborhood they’re in, who lives here, and [the church’s] history. They have no accountability to their neighbors.”

Nic Ludvig, the chair of the school’s facilities committee, doesn’t think that’s fair. After all, they’d delayed getting funding for construction while investigating the Central Lutheran option. Besides, razing the church building has been a topic at school board meetings for months.

“If you weren’t paying attention back in October 2017, then yeah, you might have missed it,” he says. “I guess we’re a little frustrated that they still try to pin that on us.”

And it’s not like they’re the real bad guys, Anderson says. The diocese was the one that closed the church in the first place.

“All we’re trying to do is serve and educate these Minnesota kids,” he says.

Unlike Mosser, McCullough was honestly taken aback. She really thought the neighborhood and the school had found an amicable solution, and Save St. Andrew's had received a groundswell of support. There are hundreds of people involved, she says, and countless orange yard signs posted for the cause: “Respect our history, engage our community.”

“We had been led to believe that that would all be taken into consideration,” she says.

McCullough was a grade school teacher. She knows how involved and all-consuming those years are to parents. But in a couple of years, she says, the parents involved in the school expansion will move on from German Immersion. Their children will join other schools, immerse themselves in other things. The neighborhood struggle will shrink into their rearview mirrors, and they will cease to care about it.

But the church will still be gone.