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119-year old St. Louis church collapses
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119-year old St. Louis church collapses

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The Rev. John Schmidtke and a seminarian were writing a sermon when a noise they at first believed was a truck crash on busy North Florissant Avenue in St. Louis interrupted their work.

They went outside and, instead of seeing a wrecked truck, saw dust and debris from the collapse next door of the vacant Bethlehem Lutheran Church, at North Florissant and Salisbury Street.

“Everything happened really quick,” Schmidtke said Monday. “All of a sudden we felt the building shake.”

No one was inside the 119-year-old brick church when much of a wall and part of the roof fell in about 7 p.m. Friday. Work began almost immediately to remove debris and part of a remaining wall near the church’s occupied building, which also houses a charter school.

Schmidtke, who has been Bethlehem Lutheran’s pastor since 1989, said damage was so great that the remainder of the old church would have to come down. Z&L Wrecking will begin the demolition after getting the required city permits.

Of immediate concern is making sure that what is left of the church is stable enough to allow classes to resume next door at Better Learning Communities Academy, a charter school that rents space at Bethlehem Lutheran’s current church, at 2153 Salisbury.

No classes were held Monday, but Schmidtke said he hoped they would resume today or Wednesday. About 140 children in kindergarten through fourth grade attend the school.

“We have families and kids all over the place here,” Schmidtke said.

The old church next door had been crumbling for years and was condemned by the city last June, city records show.

Lightning strikes in 1989 damaged the building, and the $85,000 in repairs were beyond the church’s financial means. Schmidtke said the congregation relocated to the school building next door in 1995 because the church’s overall deterioration had pushed the repair bill to $3 million. The church opted for the more affordable task of remodeling what had been the school building’s bowling alley as the sanctuary. Church offices also are in the building.

As a result, the old church next door sat empty and vulnerable to thieves and vandals. Despite Schmidtke’s efforts to barricade doors, intruders broke into the church in October to make what he called “boudoir” videos.

Church officials discovered the break-in from a Better Learning student who reported he saw a woman wearing a bra while standing in a bell tower, said Schmidtke, describing the incident as “despicable.” The video crew got away before police arrived, he added.

The Gothic-style church was built with two bell towers and a sanctuary that could hold 1,100 people. About 150 people are in the congregation now, Schmidtke said.

Though church members mourn the loss of the old building, they are encouraged by Bethlehem Lutheran’s housing efforts in its Hyde Park neighborhood, their pastor said.

In less than nine years, the church’s Better Living Communities, a nonprofit housing corporation, has built or remodeled 248 houses, Schmidtke said.

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Tim Bryant is a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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