A St. Paul congregation whose historic church was demolished in 2009 is suing the city over claims that St. Paul was deceptive in its acquisition of private property and undercompensated the church to help clear land for the Green Line light rail.
The civil complaint, filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court on behalf of 100 parishioners at Rock of Ages Missionary Baptist Church, alleges the city failed to acknowledge the members’ religious rights when it removed the dilapidated structure more than five years ago.
Rock of Ages’ predominantly black congregation owned St. Matthews’ Church, a gothic revival-style brown brick building with a tall steeple and stained-glass windows in St. Paul’s Frogtown neighborhood. The church was built by German Lutheran immigrants in 1888.
By 2009, water and structural damage bowed its walls and St. Paul declared the building on Dale Street near University Avenue a nuisance due to code violations. The congregation had begun worshiping elsewhere. It was torn down in 2009 after sitting vacant for four years.
Rock of Ages accuses St. Paul of engaging in “anticipatory demolition” in order to avoid the review process from the National Historic Preservation Act, for which the church was eligible for inclusion.
Planning for the Green Line station at Dale Street included widened sidewalks that would have gone right through the church’s front door, documents allege, so the congregation contends the city knew the structure would need to be demolished.
St. Paul has not yet responded to the documents, some of which were served in March, the complaint said.
The suit also contends the city’s demolition contract included a provision that the subcontractor could remove and sell any objects of value, regardless of whether parishioners wanted them back. Stained glass windows, wooden church pews and a bronze church bell all were sold without permission, documents allege.
Rock of Ages demands a jury trial and asks for $875,000 in damages for the loss of its building and land or a suitable replacement structure for worship. Other requested reparations include a detailed accounting of the demolition and value of the objects taken from the church, as well as the return of a bronze church bell.
“[St. Paul and its subcontractors] took advantage of a small African-American congregation with limited resources, desecrated a church sanctuary, and removed objects set aside for the worship of God,” the complaint states.