NEWPORT -- St. Mark Lutheran Church has closed its doors, but its legacy lives on in other local congregations and nonprofits.
Like many inner-city, mainline Christian churches, St. Mark was a victim of changing worship trends and demographics. Over time, members died and were not replaced, which caused a vicious spiral, former member Tete Turner said.
“We got into a financial bind where we didn’t have the money to offer the programs we really needed, and without programs, you don’t get membership,” he said.
In June 2014, with only 20 members left on the rolls, the congregation stopped meeting for Sunday worship at the Newport church.
“It felt just awful to see it go,” Turner said. “But at some point, reality sinks in and you realize you have to do it. … We were operating at a deficit for probably a year before we made the final decision.”
The church at Eighth and Monroe streets, a 10,000-square-foot, red-brick structure erected in 1897, was purchased in May 2015 for $90,000 by Jim and Iris Bush.
The couple made the purchase without knowing what they would do with the building, Jim said, but they were tired of seeing the beautiful old structure “sit there and decay.”
“It’s a gorgeous building. There’s nothing like it in Newport,” said Mark Ramler, Bush’s partner in Mansion Hill Properties.
The view from the church bell tower, the highest point in the East Row Historic District, is incredible, he added.
After paying the church’s last expenses, the congregation of St. Mark had roughly $70,000 left from the sale proceeds, which they decided to donate to local charities and nonprofits:
- $40,000 to Newport High School for its new auditorium. Turner is treasurer and CFO for Newport Independent Schools;
- $10,000 to the school district for student scholarships;
- $10,000 to the Henry Hosea House, which feeds the needy in Newport and surrounding areas, to spend on a new refrigeration system;
- $6,000 to Newport Optimist Club;
- and $5,000 to St. Luke Lutheran Church in Cold Spring, where several former St. Mark members, including Turner, now worship.
Meanwhile, Movement Church, a two-year-old congregation that meets at Samuel Woodfill Elementary in Fort Thomas, was looking for a permanent home in Newport (where it had ties with Newport Primary School and the Brighton Center).
Pastor Josh Tandy said he contacted Turner about renting space from the school system. Turner said there wasn’t anything available, but that the former St. Mark was.
At first, Movement Church officials weren’t very interested, Bush said. But the more they saw the more they liked, and they agreed to sign a five-year lease.
As part of the lease, Bush said, the church agreed to let local charities use the facility at least 10 times a year for fundraisers, and for the City Gospel Mission’s annual Thanksgiving food drive and Christmas store.
Bush also agreed to continue restoring St. Mark to Movement Church specifications. There was much to be done, including replacing the roof’s gutters and flashing; fixing the boiler and air conditioning unit; and replacing the wooden floor in the basement, which had been laid without a moisture barrier and had warped like an ocean wave.
“It took four dumpsters to get all the wood out of the basement,” Ramler said.
Bush himself spent hours on scaffolding, painting the pink sanctuary walls and ceiling beige. He estimates that he has put about $250,000 into the building, including the purchase price.
The Bushes gave away several St. Mark artifacts that Movement Church didn’t want, Jim said.
An oak altarpiece 10 feet high with a portrait of Christ painted on it and a holy water font, for example, went to the Roman Catholic Congregation of Divine Providence, a convent in Melbourne. St. Mark’s records and old photos are being catalogued and will go to the local historical society and the pews went to the Diocese of Covington for use in the chapel of Newport Central Catholic High School.
At the school where it meets for worship, Movement Church members sit in chairs at tables, Tandy said, and the church wants to keep that relaxed arrangement in its new home.
“One of our core values is that circles are better than rows,” he said.
The congregation plans to have its first service at St. Mark on March 6 in the building’s basement fellowship hall. It will continue worshipping there until Easter Sunday, March 27, when it will move into the sanctuary.
“We will do a lot of dreaming about what we can do with that space,” Tandy said. “The idea of preserving the space and using it for its original purpose is very exciting.”