After more than 100 years in three locations in Charlotte, St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church closed and ended services on Central Avenue last week.
While the immediate cause was financial, a spokesman for the Raleigh-based North Carolina diocese as well as the leader of the church-elected vestry said internal conflict that has roiled the church for several years contributed to the decision.
“It’s something that had to happen,” said senior warden Calvin Hefner. “The finances were a small portion of our problems. We simply were not able to move forward as a vestry.”
The Rev. Canon Michael Hunn, who represents Bishop Michael Curry and also is in charge of church transitions, says the diocese had worked with the congregation, including a series of meetings held over the last year.
“We were aware because of recent history that the finances were in dire shape,” Hunn said. However, he acknowledged problems within the church went further than the ledgers: “It’s been a struggling situation for some time.”
The neighborhoods around the church on Central Avenue have changed a great deal since the church moved there in 1953. St. Andrews was founded in Wesley Heights in 1895 and moved to Grandin Road in 1928.
In the Central Avenue location, the church was known for diversity, including families from Liberia. It had a community garden and was the location of a food pantry for Loaves & Fishes, as well as St. Andrews Homes for low-income elderly people, behind the church. It also rented space to a Latin American congregation.
Unfortunately, membership also had dwindled, with as few as 40 or 50 people attending on many Sundays.
However, members say the situation was more complicated than demographics. A longtime priest had to be placed on administrative leave several years ago after mishandling church money, although criminal charges weren’t filed. A new rector, the Rev. Leslie Burkhardt, was called in December 2011.
While Burkhardt had supporters within the church, some members of the congregation had trouble working with her and that made things worse, cutting into the number of people willing to serve on the vestry or take part in the church’s outreach programs.
Burkhardt was not available for comment Monday. Hunn said the conflict within the congregation already was an issue when she arrived.
Still, members of the congregation say they were shocked by the action of the diocese at the meeting last Wednesday, when the vestry announced it was handing over the church property to the diocese and beginning the process to close, including an audit.
“The way it was handled was brutal,” said Wanda Hubicki, a member since 1984. “They pretty much said they doubted that the church would ever open again.”
Hubicki said church members never expected that they wouldn’t get to return to their church after the meeting. On Sunday, a group of 30 to 40 members held a prayer service on the lawn of the church, although no priest was present.
“If they were going to deliver that news, they could have given us at least a week or two to assimilate the information,” Hubicki said. She wishes the diocese had helped them explore options such as merging with another congregation.
However, Hunn said that rarely works in the long term. While the Episcopal Church, both in North Carolina and nationally, has started finding ways for churches to share resources and even priests, churches that come together because of financial difficulty usually don’t last.
Hunn said the diocese is reviewing the contracts for all the outreach and other groups that use the building. Loaves & Fishes has remained active and St. Andrews Homes will continue. An English as a Second Language program run by Central Piedmont Community College is on break for the summer.
Everyone involved with the church acknowledged the pain involved with the closing. The diocese is offering pastoral counseling.
“We’re continuing to do the best we can to care for people,” said Hunn. “It’s messy and we understand the grief.”