Restoring Faith

A grant helps a historic Boonville church stay alive
Sunday, August 24, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 6:25 p.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008

Two years ago, the Rev. Edwin Donaldson Jr. worried about how he was going to come up with enough money to save the crumbling St. Matthew AME Church, 309 Spruce St., Boonville.

Today, Donaldson gives “praise to God” for an $85,000 grant from the city to help restore the 110-year-old church, including the installation of 10 brilliantly colored, handmade stained-glass windows.

“It’s the oldest black church building in Boonville,” Donaldson said. “It’s important for us to recognize its historical value and maintain what our founders worked so hard to build.”

The grant for St. Matthew’s restoration is from a one-time, $850,000 donation to the city from the Davis Gaming Commission, which opened the Isle of Capri Casino. St. Matthew’s first request for funding, in 2000, was turned down after the St. Louis chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State threatened to sue the city for giving public money to a church.

The city council finally approved the grant in December of 2002, after the city’s legal adviser, Larry Marshall, assured city officials that giving money to a church for historic preservation would not violate any laws. Rudy Pulido, president of the St. Louis chapter of Americans United, declined to comment on the grant to St. Matthew other than to say that his group plans to take no legal action against the city.

Since receiving the large donation — known as the “850K Fund” — from the gaming commission three years ago, Boonville has been able to help many of its historic landmarks get a much-needed facelift. City Council Member Morris Carter said half the fund was designated for historic preservation and half to benefit the general public. An overwhelming majority of the funding has been spent on restorations.

“The argument is that if you use money for historical preservation, you are ultimately benefiting the general public,” Carter said. “We set up specific guidelines on how to spend the money. Requests were approved on a first-come, first-served basis.”

The effort to restore St. Matthew’s church began in 2000, when members of the congregation raised $15,000 for a new roof. The grant from the city has allowed Donaldson to expand the project to include tuck-pointing of the exterior brick; new central heating and air conditioning; the installation of a handicapped ramp; and electrical work in the adjoining annex. The pastor hopes to repair the water-damaged ceiling, add hanging cathedral lights and restore the original floor and altar by the end of the year.

The centerpiece of the restoration is the new stained-glass windows. Tom Runkle, a stained-glass maker with 30 years of experience, was commissioned June 1 by the church to design and install the new windows, which will cost about $19,000.

“Each window takes about 20 hours to complete,” Runkle said, “but the end result is worth it. They turned out beautifully.”

Terrance Crook, president for Concerned Citizens for the Black Community, echoes the appreciation expressed by Donaldson. The non-profit group of about 150 volunteers received $83,000 from the “850K Fund” to restore a building that, during the segregation era, was an all-black high school. The structure, which was built in 1939, is now used as a community recreation center.

“We normally work without money from government or grants,” Crook said. “This money has been a big help.”

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