Technicians lifted each of the lengthy gold-colored pipes up to the choir loft at Emanuel AME Church, returning a vintage organ to a historic church in the waning first phase of a major building restoration.
As this work ends, the Charleston community will gather at Emanuel to remember nine church members who were slain in a tragedy at the church eight years ago this month.
On that horrific Wednesday night during a Bible study on June 17, 2015, a self-proclaimed racist murdered the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, the church’s pastor, the Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor, the Rev. Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, the Rev. Daniel Simmons, Cynthia Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lance, Tywanza Sanders and Myra Thompson.
The schedule for the church’s eighth annual Emanuel Nine Commemoration, today through June 23, includes nine events. The schedule concludes with the Emanuel Nine Humanitarian Awards Program at the church.
Restoring the physical church
To outsiders, the $1.9 million restoration began in the early fall of last year when black netting and scaffolding shrouded the famous church’s steeple, an iconic spire in the Charleston skyline. Planning for the work began a decade ago. The actual work commenced in the early fall of 2022 inside the church to buttress a failing roof, said Emanuel’s senior pastor, the Rev. Eric Manning.
During that process, the decision was made to also repair a tilting choir loft and rebuild the organ and its 25 pipes installed in 1908. Tuning the instrument will continue for several weeks as Emanuel commemorates a tragedy that claimed the lives of nine parishioners on June 17, 2015.
“The church [congregation] is better than it was eight years ago. We still have some who are in a different space [emotionally]. Trauma impacts everyone differently,” Manning said. “We have some who participate on various levels in the annual commemoration, and we are thankful for those who do.”
Manning said the church is in a season of restoration and not mourning.
“This past year is a restoration, a revival and a reclaiming. We are restoring the physical [church] and reclaiming our members we may have lost through the process of Covid and those who are not traditional members” but view services online, he explained.
Manning spoke to the Charleston City Paper on June 1, two days after he traveled to Pittsburgh to show his support for members of the Tree of Life synagogue where a gunman in October 2018 killed 11 people and wounded six others. The gunman’s federal trial started May 30.
Phase one restoration
Back in Charleston, the pastor’s day returned to chatting with workers of the Charleston construction company Magee Ratcliff and even rolling up his sleeves to inspect repairs to the church’s original wooden pews, which were turned upside down in the ground-floor fellowship hall.
The church’s brick walls have been encased for more than a century inside a time capsule of exterior white stucco and interior brown paneled walls. Removing the paneling in the fellowship hall and in the choir loft has exposed the historic beauty of the church, Manning boasted.
The first of two phases of the restoration began with Bennett Engineering accessing the termite and water intrusion that damaged all but one of the eight roof supports, said Manning, who arrived at Emanuel in 2016.
The following year, the church was tented and gassed to eradicate the termites, he explained. In September 2022, Magee Ratcliff began transferring the weighty roof trusses onto interior supports that rose from the ground floor to the roof. The work never interrupted Sunday services.
The first phase of the restoration has included repairing three of the eight roof trusses and chip away sections of exterior stucco to refresh crumbling mortar in the brick work.
Emanuel was completed in the spring of 1892 with construction continuing for years afterwards, said church historian Lee Bennett. In 1903, five years before the organ was installed, the congregation topped the church with a wooden steeple. It remained undisturbed until Hurricane Hugo damaged it in September 1989.
Flashing was installed between the steeple and the roof to seal one of many leaks, Manning said. The bell tower’s distinctive green wooden louvers were also repaired and repainted, he added.
Passersby on Calhoun Street pause daily outside the church at noon to listen then gaze at the steeple when record chimes play Let There be Peace on Earth and then at 5 p.m. with the playing of Amazing Grace.
The church’s ornate sanctuary features the original gas lanterns along the balcony railings. The sanctuary has remained relatively untouched except for a new ceiling. Workmen replaced the original tin in the vaulted ceiling with drywall that closely resembles the original design, Manning said. Salvageable tin sections are in storage with plans to possibly turn them into artwork, he added.
During the first phase, two restrooms have been installed on the main sanctuary level, Bennett said. In the fellowship hall the men’s restroom has been renovated and upgraded to meet the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) standards, he added. An upgrade of the ground-floor women’s restroom is in the restoration’s second phase.
Manning estimates it will cost $1.6 million to complete the second phase. It includes repairs to the church’s westside exterior wall and repairing three more roof trusses.
Pictures and videos of the restoration have been placed on the church’s website “so the [church members] can see what they are getting,” Manning said. “People have to appreciate what God has done and allowed for us to complete. This effort has been massive, and I wouldn’t want anyone to lose sight of how important this is.”
Herb Frazier, senior projects editor at the City Paper, is the coauthor of We are Charleston: Tragedy and Triumph at Mother Emanuel with Marjory Wentworth and Dr. Bernard Powers Jr.
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