In Como Park, a battle to save St. Andrew's Church from a school's bulldozer

Neighbors are hoping to save the St. Paul building from the wrecking ball. But the Twin Cities German Immersion School needs space to accommodate its soaring student population.

Neighbors are hoping to save the St. Paul building from the wrecking ball. But the Twin Cities German Immersion School needs space to accommodate its soaring student population.

Big crowds are not common at the Twin Cities German Immersion School’s board meetings. But on May 23, the room was stuffed with parents, neighbors, and kids, the crowd straining to see the long table at the front of the room.

About 20 people had signed up to speak, almost all on the same subject: the St. Andrew's church building.

St. Andrew's presides over Como Park with its sloping terracotta roof tiles and red brick belltower. Mass hasn’t been held there in seven years, but German Immersion has been using it as a combination gymnasium and cafeteria for their adjoining school. Now there were plans to tear the church down and expand the school.

German Immersion is a public charter school has been in the neighborhood since 2013 with 330 students. Since then the ranks have swollen to over 550. It's expecting more than 600 by 2021. Board member Nic Ludwig says they need more classrooms and a bigger gym and cafeteria. Counting education assistants, they have about a 12-1 student-teacher ratio.

St. Andrew’s, located on Como Avenue, is not ideal, Ludwig says. Its nooks, crannies, and acoustics are “difficult to work with” when it comes to assembling large groups of kids. Besides, it’s expensive to maintain. He estimated the costs of replacing the church’s roof, boiler, windows, and doors at nearly $1.2 million.

Marietta McCullough represents Save Historic St. Andrew’s. The church represents her entire life. She went to school there. She taught there. She even got married there. When the parish was closed in 2011, it came as a personal blow. Now she’s hoping they at least get to keep the building.

She was shocked to find out German Immersion planned to demolish it. This process has been in the works for years, but a lot of the Save Historic St. Andrew’s folks only found out in March.

“I was really concerned,” says Anna Mosser. She lives next to the school.

Her group now has about 25 neighbors, and they brought a petition with 600 signatures to the meeting: Please hold off on demolishing the church so we can at least talk about this.

“I and many others here feel that TCGIS has not met their responsibilities in being a part of this community. Do you know who we are?” Mosser said at the meeting.

Teachers and parents stood up too. They regretted the potential loss of St. Andrew’s. They wanted to work with the group, but felt this was their only option. Proposals like leasing additional space at a nearby church had already been entertained and dismissed.

And space is already tight. Parent and staff member Elizabeth Tobias told the crowd that she has to help special education students in the hallway. This demolition, she said, was about the future. St. Andrew’s was something that only existed in the past.

“It’s a building,” she said. “It’s just a building.” There was a disgruntled rumble through the crowd. “I expect my students to listen to me. This goes for everyone else too.”

“We’re not your students,” someone in the crowd snapped.

The argument has created some bitterness -- one side accusing the other of not respecting their love of the building, the other side accusing them of not caring about their kids.

In the end, neither side truly won. The board tabled the decision and said they were exploring another option, which they couldn’t discuss.

Ludwig says he can’t go into details, but they’re now looking into a solution that hadn’t been available even a month ago.

If this new option comes through, he’s still not sure what will happen to St. Andrew's. They’ll probably know more by the school’s June board meeting.

McCullough felt relieved when the church’s fate was postponed. A few neighbors even added “Thanks for listening” to their “Save St. Andrew’s” signs. But they’re not sure how to feel about what’s going to happen next.

“We’re kind of in a limbo state,” she says.

They’re still looking into getting the church declared a landmark. She thinks it would be a gesture of goodwill to let some of her fellow community members help with the new facility plans, but knows the school’s not required to do that.

For now, she’s praying -- to St. Andrew, actually. He was one of the 12 apostles, and the patron saint of fishermen. She believes in him, and that the church that bore his name was a dedication to him. She’s getting to be an age where the old anchors in her life are disappearing, and she just doesn’t want to see this one go too. Because to her, it’s not just a building.