After accident, “Surprise!” from the pulpit pleases congregation members

June 11, 2020 by Sally Scherer

When the Rev. Carol DeVaughn welcomed the congregation of Faith Des Peres Presbyterian Church to virtual worship on a recent Sunday, those watching could hardly believe what they were seeing.

The interim pastor was standing in the Old Meeting House, a one-room stone church constructed in 1834 – which is also a significant landmark in the abolitionist movement.

The Old Meeting House after the accident

“Grace to you and peace in the name of our risen Lord Jesus Christ,” she said. “And, surprise!”

The “surprise!” came because just seven months before the Memorial Day weekend service the historic church in Frontenac, Mo., had been extensively damaged when an automobile – that could have been traveling between 60-70 mph, according to police – ran into the side of the church near the pulpit.

St. Louis’s KSDK-TV reported that all that was left at the scene after the early morning Oct. 3, 2019 accident was “rubble and stones scattered all over the ground, broken glass and car parts still lying in the grass.”

“It left a hole 20 feet wide, by 10 feet tall,” said Tony Harris, the restoration project manager who works for Belfor Property Restoration.

“If it hadn’t been an historic church, our engineers might have recommended it be torn down.”

The history

The original Old Des Peres Presbyterian Church, nicknamed the Old Meeting House, was built by a group of settlers who came by buckboard and wagon from the East and South, the church’s website states.

The little rock church was constructed on three acres of land donated by three families, each giving one acre. It was one of the first Presbyterian churches organized west of the Mississippi.

“We can seat 60 comfortably there,” said Barbara Abbett of the historic church where she has been a member for about 45 years and currently serves as clerk of session. “There’s no heat in it, so we generally only worship there during the summer.”

The Rev. Elijah P. Lovejoy was among the early ministers of the church. An abolitionist, he denounced slavery from his pulpit and in his newspaper, The St. Louis Observer.

Eventually he moved to Alton, Ill., where he led the College Avenue Presbyterian Church and founded a newspaper called the Alton Observer which regularly featured his anti-slavery columns. He was shot and killed in 1837 by a mob in Alton during an attack to destroy Lovejoy’s press and abolitionist materials.

The original land donors of the church stipulated that the congregation set aside part of the land for a cemetery. It has a designated section where slaves are buried in unmarked graves. In their honor, a stone memorial has been placed in the southeast corner of the cemetery as testimony to the grievous reality of their lives, the website states.

Folklore tells that Yankee soldiers nicknamed the church the Old Stone Meeting House during the Civil War. Considering that slave owners originally contributed land for the church, the church was rumored to be a well-known stop along the Underground Railroad.

The Old Meeting House served as the main location of the church until the 1960s when a new, larger church was built nearby.

In the 1970s, the church restored the old stone building. Those efforts were rewarded in 1978 when the church was added to the National Register of Historic Places, states the church history on its website.

In the early 1990s, the congregations of Faith Presbyterian and Des Peres Presbyterian churches merged. Faith Des Peres Presbyterian Church is now located about a mile from the Old Meeting House.

The restoration

The restored Old Meeting House

Before restoration of the historic structure could begin, it had to be stabilized. An emergency restoration team was on site less than 12 hours after the accident, Abbett said.

Next, restoration professionals accessed the damage and began making repairs.

“After the accident, we couldn’t imagine what would happen, how it would be restored,” Abbett said. “But it’s such a treasure to us. And the community feels that way, too.”

The stone wall had to be repaired, windows had to be replaced and a trip to a salvage yard to find some reclaimed wood proved helpful. Pews and a desk were damaged, but the church’s organ just missed the impact and was unscathed.

The original walls of the building are double thickness of stone. With the repair, cinder blocks and plaster were used on the inside of the building and original stones were used on the outside repair, Harris said.

Replacing the three damaged windows required help from an Amish window builder.

“He’s about four hours from St. Louis and we’ve used him before,” Harris said. “He duplicated everything. You really can’t tell looking at those windows that they aren’t original.”

Repairing the wood flooring proved more challenging. The idea of just covering the damaged wood was considered, but Harris wasn’t pleased with it. A local flooring company was brought in to help and was able to find some unclaimed wood to make the repairs.

“The original wood for the floors came from trees that are now extinct. They don’t grow anymore,” Harris said. “But the flooring company was able to find just enough reclaimed lumber to make the repairs.”

A carpenter for 25 years, Harris said he was pleased with the results and he’s glad the church is, too.

“The end result was awesome,” he said. “Of course, you could buy a nice used car for the price of those windows, but it was one of our better jobs.”

Abbett said the repair bills for the restoration are between $125,000-$150,000. Some of that cost may be recouped from the car owner’s insurance company, she said.

The future

The church is pleased to have the Old Meeting House repaired and open again.

“We wanted the Memorial Day service to be a special surprise to all of our members,” Abbett said.

Facebook reaction to the worship service was indicative of the members’ joy.

Comments included: “The church looks wonderful!” from Terry L. Baker, and “Beautiful day for a service at the restored church!” from Roy Lenox and “So nice to see the old stone church restored” from Yolanda Mortimer.

Abbett said an open house will be scheduled when in-person worship can be held again.

“We’ve had picnic on the grounds before,” she said. “That could be what we’ll do.”

Sally Scherer is a writer and communications consultant based in Lexington, Kentucky. She is a member of Second Presbyterian Church, where she is an elder and a member of the choir. Send comments on this article to Robyn Davis Sekula, Vice President of Communications and Marketing at the Presbyterian Foundation, at robyn.sekula@presbyterianfoundation.org.