Church collapse forces elementary school to close

ST. LOUIS (KSDK) - A historic St. Louis church is in ruins after it suddenly collapsed. Now, the neighboring school is being forced to close.

The Bethlehem Lutheran Church had stood at the corner of Salisbury Street and North Florissant Avenue in north St. Louis for nearly 120 years. But on Sunday afternoon, it wasn't much more than a pile of rubble.

On Friday, the church collapsed and a wall fell toward North Florissant Avenue. The immediate concern was for the Better Learning Communities Academy charter school on the other side of the church. For safety reasons, it'll be closed at least through Monday.

The play yard between the school and the church is littered with crumbled brick and shards of stained glass. After the collapse on Friday, heavy equipment was brought in to push a wall in on itself to keep the church from falling into the school.

The church's demise began in 1989, when it was struck by lightning three times. Each strike caused a fire. In 1995, the congregation decided to move -- in the hopes of one day coming back.

"We needed $85,000 for immediate repairs, said Pastor John Schmidtke. "We didn't have $85,000. To totally re-do the building in 1995 was about $3 million."

So the church stood empty, at the mercy of Mother Nature and a favorite target for criminals.

"Vandals really desecrated the building," Schmidtke said.

It's a story St. Louis Building Commissioner Frank Oswald has heard time and again.

At last count there are 6,100 vacant buildings in the city.

"Two thousand one hundred and fourteen of those have been structurally condemned," Oswald said. "Most of them are north of Interstate 64."

Oswald says the city spends just over $1 million every year to demolish between 200 and 400 crumbling buildings.

"Those buildings that are at a point where they're becoming really dangerous to the public, we're going to take action on them," Oswald said.

But there are more buildings to demolish than the city has money to spend. And Oswald says his department also has to balance safety with preserving historic buildings.

"Many of these buildings are in historic neighborhoods. And it's important to keep those historic buildings that are able to be saved," he said.

Bethlehem Lutheran Church was actually on a list of historic buildings to be saved. Moving forward, the congregation hopes to build a new church.

"A building that will continue to the efforts that we have as a church to tell about Jesus. But also as a community leader," Schmidtke said.

While the building is essentially gone, Pastor Schmidtke says the church's legacy lives on through its housing initiative. So far more than 100 homes have been built or rehabbed in the area around the church.


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