Minneapolis / Saint Paul / Twin Cities urban exploration
THE TEMPLE OF SAINTS VOLODYMYR & OLGA
(AKA Grace Community Church)
 

 

DATE:

  • AUGUST 2002

MEMBERS:

  • MAX ACTION
  • DAG JEFFERSON
  • WOP
  • TOURETTES
  • SHERPA

In which our intrepid adventurers discover and explore the carcass of an almost 100 year-old house of worship and enjoy themselves thoroughly, even while hiding from the police in the bushes.

THE BACKGROUND AND HISTORY PART

This building was built in 1908 in the form of a Roman Temple, with columns, gargoyles, and a dark interior. It was originally a Methodist church. Why they decided that the First Methodist Church should look like a Roman Temple is beyond me. They were, of course, weirdoes. Anyway, eventually the Methodists sold the church to a different group: the Saints Volodymyr and Olga Ukrainian Orthodox Church. These new weirdoes hung out there for decades, doing their weirdo rituals to their weirdo gods in their weirdo language. Time went on and at some point someone realized that there were no longer enough Orthodox Ukrainians in Saint Paul for a church that size, so in 1994 they sold it for $280,000 to some other weirdoes, who happened to be Baptists.

Well, nobody must have taking very good care of the church, because by 2002 conservative estimates were that it would take at least one million dollars just to get the thing up to code. The roof leaks, there is no handicapped access, it is full of lead and asbestos, the heating and plumbing is totally screwed, and the exterior is crumbling. Plus, there is a shortage of nearby parking. So, the pastor moved his tiny flock (about 50 weirdoes) out of the crumbling monolith (which seats about 700) and into a nice little comfy place across town. This left the place vacant, while the pastor tried to sell the site to developers, who wanted to demolish it and build condos. But then the city and the historians had a fit, and the ensuing battle got into the paper, which is where Action Squad found out about it. The weirdo pastor lost that fight, but still sold it to some weirdo private religious college to convert it to a charter school, so everybody is happy. Especially us, because we got to explore the place in the meantime.

Now, for the much more interesting story ...

THE SCOUTING PART

It is a very rare thing to find a recently-abandoned church; they are usually either active or have been disused for decades, and have been stripped out, spray-painted, partied-in, and basically rendered uninteresting to true explorers. Even the latter is sadly almost impossible to find in our area: buildings here seem to be reused or torn down almost immediately. So, when I read the newspaper article about a huge, 100 year-old church that was facing demolition, I knew we had to move fast.

It was a weeknight and the sun was still shining the evening that Wop, Dag Jefferson, Sherpa and I went to scout the church out for potential entrances. After locating the building, we drove around the block to get a sense of the area, and then parked and wandered around the perimeter checking for access points. There were some side doors with good cover from the street that looked promising, but the groundfloor windows were all tightly secured and climbing to higher levels did not look like a good idea. We decided to innocently walk up to the structure and test out some of the doors.

Hopes went downward rather quickly as the limited options proved to be rusted shut or otherwise impassible one after another. As I tested a final side door, I told to Dag Jefferson to give the main doors a shot. He laughed. I said, "no, you never know you'd be surprised how often the obvious entrance turns out to be the best." Skeptically, he mounted up the front stairs (in full view of the neighborhood), and tugged on the sets of heavy wooden double doors. Down below, testing the hopeless side door, the loud sound that came down to me was unmistakable, and music to my ears. One of the sets of doors had opened when Dag yanked on it. We quickly closed them up again and oh-so-casually walked away, hearts racing, already making plans to return after dark.

TRIP ONE
TRIP TWO (and THREE)

We killed some time at the bar, and then got geared up and headed back it was still much earlier than I liked, but we were too excited to wait around any longer. We got in without incident and began our exploration.

It was immediately evident that tons of stuff had been left behind, including priest and choir robes, altar cloths, Bibles, a throne basically, lots of religious artifacts, in addition to the more mundane office and community-center type materials. Other than the chaos of the congregation moving out, there was no vandalism of any kind virgin territory.

Lights were kept to a bare minimum to prevent anyone noticing them shining out through a window. The interior was almost all done in dark, antique wood. We crept around the building as quietly as possible, but the ancient floors creaked loudly almost everywhere, and weird echoes and groans haunted our every moment in the church.

A mere whisper would bounce around the space and somehow come back sounding like someone else saying something completely different probably not something very pleasant. As soon as we got inside, my camera stopped working for no apparent reason. It became easy to imagine that there were darker reasons for the congregation moving out than the ones the newspaper had printed.

I'm not superstitious or even religious, but it was a damn spooky place to explore regardless. I loved it. I wondered aloud if "Saint Volodymyr and Olga" were into human sacrifice ...

Slowly, we made our way through the confusing network of narrow, twisting hallways and oddly-placed stairwells that connected the various areas of the church.

There was the main floor, which was mostly taken up by the sanctuary. There was also a small kitchen, an office, and some random rooms of unknown purpose. Throughout the building, in several janitor-closet type rooms, as well as several back-room nooks, we would repeatedly find a baseball bat just inside a door, obviously for defense purposes. (I thought this was odd given that the church was not in a bad neighborhood.)

There was the upper floor, which was small due to the two-story high space of the sanctuary. A narrow, creepy stairwell led us up into the unfinished attic, where we discovered ancient desks, moldering heaps of Ukrainian magazines from the 1940's and 1950's (see bottom right of page), and piles of strange blackened glass. The roof was accessible via a trapdoor, but it was uniform and boring, so we deemed it not worth the risk of being seen.

Then there was the odd little room we found in the middle of the attic. It had a circular geometric pattern made of 2x4s on the floor, with a cable running out of its center, through a pulley, and to a hand-operated winch mounted on the wall. Only later did I solve the puzzle this presented, when I recalled the massive chandelier in the sanctuary; the winch had been used to lower it down for cleaning and for replacing dead bulbs.

Beneath the main floor was the basement. There was a stage, dozens of storage rooms, a den-like room full of couches, games and such, a large room buried chest deep in random junk (such as clothing, toys, and furniture), a much larger kitchen, and access to the subbasement. God, I love subbasements. But hold on to that thought.

The best part of the basement was a pastor's office that was locked. We brought a ladder from a different part of the building over, and Dag (who is a tall guy) climbed up and over the wall, dropping down inside and unlocking the door for the rest of us. A dwarf-sized door led to a storage area full of old cool stuff. At the very back of this long, thin space, under a couple of boards, we discovered two large jugs of Carlo Rossi wine hidden carefully away. One was full, the other was about gone. Pastor, pastor drinking in secret, were you?

There was a major leak near the top of the rickety stairs leading down into the dank space of the subbasement, so we had to cope with the fact that the sound of dripping water in such a echoing environment someone sounds eerily like human voices somewhere nearby.

The subbasement was mostly taken up by a ancient, gargantuan coal furnace. Other than yellowing warning signs written in Greek, there was not too much of interest down there.

Except for The Door.

The Door, you see, led OUTWARD from the building, right through the foundations and into the beyond. It was crumbling and obviously as old as the building was. It was clear that nobody had been in there for a long, long time the door was horribly warped, and there were bricks piled in front of it to the level of our chests. I couldn't wait to see what was on the other side. Now, I'm not 8 years old. Of COURSE I knew that it would not be catacombs, or a crypt, or a tunnel system, or a stairwell down to a sub-sub basement but it MIGHT be! And no matter what was in there, I wanted to see it and nothing was going to stop me.

So we formed a bucket-brigades style human chain, and started removing the brick wall, brick by brick. Dozens and dozens of bricks and one spider bite later, we had cleared the doorway of debris. The door itself opened with some persuasion, and we dragged it open.

Inside was what had once been the coal room: where coal was dropped in from above, (via a manhole-type opening) outside the building by I don't know. The coal deliveryman, I suppose. Then the coal had been lugged from the coal room to the furnace by some poor guy with no health benefits.

It was a two-part space with stone walls, and contained mainly molding, dry-rotted church pews that had been discarded and forgotten at some point long ago in the century-old building's past. I'm quite sure there was a dead body under the pile, of course, but we were unable to find him. Heh. Anyway, nobody seemed to really appreciate the coal room but me. I can't explain why, but I thought it was really cool I guess it was probably because it had been a sealed-off underground room and getting into it was as close to Indiana Jones as a guy can hope for.

Hours had passed, and we knew we'd be back (I had to get some pictures for you, didn't I?), so we collected ourselves and escaped, leaving a side door unlocked for less-visible access next time.

A couple of days later, a new article ran in the paper: this one stating that the church was not going to be demolished: a private religious college was going to purchase it and spend over a million dollars to bring it up to code and make it into a charter school.

Shit.

Time was short; we had to get back and take our photos and finish our exploring before the deal went through and the new owners came and locked the place up.

So, that very night Wop, Dag Jefferson and I returned, with a new camera I bought just for the occasion. The only major new discovery was the safe we found built into the foundation in the basement, behind a counter. It was very old, very cool, and we quickly discovered that picking a combination safe is very not as easy as Hollywood had led us to believe. Nobody had left the combo written on anything nearby, either, the insensitive bastards.

Our photography was cut short that night, however. The three of us were spread out a bit on the main floor, doing our own exploring. My first awareness of something amiss was when Dag started whispering my name urgently.

I answered.

He asked if I'd just been in the sanctuary (the layout on the main floor was kind of a loop).

I hadn't.

Then things got confusing. Something about Wop seeing someone coming at us with a light, and it might be the cops, and oh shit, and so we very quickly made out way to the side door and fled.

I hid in some bushes right across the road while the others continued down the road. I had not heard or seen anything, and wanted to see who came out the door after us.

I stripped off my incriminating gear and stashed it deep in a shrub and waited.

After a minute or two, I heard the side door rattle but no one emerged.

Suddenly, I noticed two guys walking down the sidewalk toward me. I was convinced that they were cops looking for us. I had no time to move somewhere better and although the bushes shielded me from view from anyone at the church, I would be plainly visible to these two when they looked at me.

I tried to make myself very small, and made sure I was totally in the shadows, if also totally uncovered.

My mind raced as I tried to find a plausible excuse for being curled up on my side in a fetal position next to a bush in the middle of the night.

The best I could come up with before they were upon me was that I'd pretend to be a drunk guy who had passed out there. It was pretty weak, yes, but I had bare seconds and really, what good excuse could I have come up with? If they saw me I was toast.

The footsteps were so close that it seemed I could hear each individual grain of sand being eroded slightly against the sidewalk as their feet came down. Step, step, step, step and then silence. Just as they had arrived at a place were they could see me.

Fuck.

In my mind's eye, I could see them looking down at me and using simple hand signals to coordinate their next move. I could see the smirks under their cop mustaches.

Then: step, step, step from farther down the sidewalk. The silence had just been them cutting across the grass.

I peeked out. They were not cops. They were just some random dudes. Bah.

So I got the car and went and found my friends. We bandied about theories. Who the hell could it have been in the church? Cops would not have just let us escape so easily. Other intruders would not brazenly approach us (we had no doubt at all that they had heard us).

This remained a mystery until later that night, when it occurred to me that I'd told Danarchy about the church. A mutual friend confirmed that Danarchy and Captain Nordic had indeed gone to the church that night. Hearing noises, they assumed it was us and were coming to meet up with us when we fled. I'm sure they got quite a laugh out of it. (You bastards.)

I later returned with Tourettes and Wop to finish up the rather minimal photo-documentation. A giant dumpster had been parked out front: the new owners were about to gut out all the pews, random detritus, and other neat stuff.

There had been a tiny window of exploration opportunity, and we'd successfully identified it and struck within it. Sadly, no one else will be able to physically explore the abandoned Temple of Saints Volodymyr and Olga for a long time, since it's not abandoned any more. Hopefully, this site will help ease the world's pain caused by this fact, insofar as it allows you all to explore it vicariously.

May mighty Volodymyr bless you all.

SOME OLD MAGAZINES FOUND
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