It has been years since neighbors have heard the bells of St. Andrew’s Catholic Church. The St. Paul parish closed in 2011, and its convent and rectory were demolished. The 1927 church’s bell tower and Byzantine-Romanesque exterior remain, home since 2013 to the Twin Cities German Immersion School.
Soon, the former church also may fall to the wrecking ball. The school plans to replace the building with a 23,000-square-foot addition to accommodate its growing enrollment.
Its Como Park neighbors are none too happy about it.
“It’s old-fashioned, but a lot of people still identify with what neighborhood, and then what parish, they’re from,” said Maren Swenson, who has lived across the street from St. Andrew’s and its former school for 31 years.
“And this means that the neighborhood is not only losing an architecturally significant and familiar St. Paul landmark, but an identifier for everyone who lives here.”
She added: “I think it’s just been poorly, poorly handled.”
Officials of the school, a public charter school that serves 550 students in kindergarten through eighth grade, say they would continue using the church if it made sense educationally and financially. They’ve renovated it before, transforming its former sanctuary into a gymnasium and performance space and converting the basement into a school lunchroom.
But the school is expected to grow past 600 pupils over the next few years, mainly because older students are sticking around longer than at other immersion schools. A new addition is needed to better serve them, said Executive Director Ted Anderson.
“We’re on top of each other as it is,” he said, pointing to the fact that only one class can use the gym at any one time and the school cycles through five lunch periods a day.
Anderson said he has an affinity for old buildings and, when he lived in Germany, they used a word — Denkmalschutz — that basically means you cannot touch a building that has historical significance.
But the school’s cost analysis has shown that it makes little sense to continue using the church. Beyond the expense of heating the former sanctuary to its 30-foot ceiling, it would cost about $1.2 million to perform a long list of repairs, including replacing the former church’s boiler, windows and doors and terra-cotta roof, Anderson said.
Nic Ludwig, parent of two German-immersion students and facilities chairman of the school board, said the school always planned to have three 24-student sections per grade. The addition, which would cost an estimated $4 million, would more efficiently allow for that, while also providing necessary instructional space for children who need additional help — kids who now sit with tutors and aides in hallways and corners.
“We are definitely already feeling the cramped space now,” Ludwig said, adding, “If there was a way to use that space in a cost-effective manner, it would make complete sense to do that.”
The issue ignited neighborhood passions after Michael Kuchta, executive director of the Como Community Council, attended a recent school board meeting to discuss space needs and posted the school’s preliminary plans on the neighborhood Facebook page March 23. Neighbors posted dozens of comments, ranging from support for the school addition to outright indignation.
“It seems we are in such a hurry to tear down our past instead of preserving it,” said one.
“Question: Is there anything TCGIS could do that people in this neighborhood would not complain about?” said another.
Swenson said she disliked how neighbors are just now learning about the school’s plans.
“It’s shocking, finding out on Facebook that we are going to have a large demolition and another big building made and no one was told about it,” she said.
The school needed to do a better job of inviting its nearest neighbors into the discussions about its space needs, she said. She hopes they will do so now — and perhaps find a way to save the bell tower and the church facade and incorporate them into an addition.
Ludwig, who moved his family to the neighborhood seven years ago and is regularly engaged with his neighbors, said the school has been discussing its space needs for at least a year. He disagreed with those who say that plans to raze the church have been intentionally kept quiet. Instead, he said, it’s taken time to fully examine the costs of staying with the old space — or replacing it with new. That analysis continues, he said.
Neighbor Helen Bond, who has lived near the church for 25 years and whose partner attended the former church school, said she has no doubt that the church will be razed. Still, as she looked out toward children running around the playground at midday Tuesday, she said she likes having the school as a neighbor.
“It’s a sad thing,” she said. “But we don’t have any control over that. They own it.”
St. Paul City Council President Amy Brendmoen, who lives near the school and represents the neighborhood, said she’s urging neighbors to stay calm and stay engaged in the continuing planning process. “This is very early in the conversation, she said.
The issue still must go through the Como Community Council — it is scheduled to go before its land-use committee next month — as well as possibly before the city’s Heritage Preservation Commission and, later, the City Council. There still is much more to learn, she said.