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Neighborhoodsby Ed Gunts9:00 amJan 25, 20210

St. Louis-based ministry buys Mount Vernon church surrounded by scaffolding

Numerous building code violations have made the historic church a safety hazard and eyesore for years

Above: Scaffolding above the church’s main entrance on East Chase Street. (Ed Gunts)

The church with the unsightly scaffolding has a new owner.

Eight years after exasperated city officials erected metal tubing and a temporary wooden roof around the perimeter of New Refuge Deliverance Cathedral to protect pedestrians from falling tiles, the building has been purchased by a growing Midwest ministry.

Olivet Assembly USA, a division of World Olivet Assembly, has bought the landmark property at 1110 St. Paul Street, originally known as Christ Protestant Episcopal Church and later as Christ Church, for $550,000.

The evangelical Christian denomination, based in St. Louis, said it plans to use the church as the base for a new ministry in Baltimore.

“We thank God for letting us continue the legacy of spreading the gospel and the good news of Jesus Christ following the faithful work done by brothers and sisters at New Refuge Deliverance Cathedral,” Olivet General Secretary Anthony Chiu said in a statement.

As part of an aggressive expansion plan, the Assembly has been buying properties from other congregations and institutions that have been struggling before and during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Last fall, the ministry’s international affiliate, World Olivet Assembly, acquired the former Central Baptist Church in Sanford, Florida. In December, it acquired Temple University’s former Tyler School of Art and Architecture campus for $3 million.

Olivet University, the evangelical institution with which Olivet Assembly reportedly has ties, also made headlines recently for pleading guilty to charges in connection with an embezzlement scheme involving the use of real estate for money laundering.

According to The New York Post and others, Olivet University pleaded guilty last year to one count of conspiracy and one count of falsifying records in connection with its purchase of the former Harlem Valley Psychiatric Center in upstate New York.

The university agreed to pay $1.25 million in forfeiture after Andrew Lin, chairman of the Olivet board; Lingyi Xiao, the college’s finance director; and William Anderson, a trustee and CEO of Christian Media Corp., were indicted by the office of New York County District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr.

The ministry did not immediately respond to questions from The Brew.

A church leader, who responded after publication, said the ministry is “not in any way tied to [the University] legally.”

“Our mission has nothing to do with Olivet University,” said Olivet Assembly USA General Secretary Anthony Chiu.

Falling Roof Tiles

The Gothic-style church is one of the most noteworthy in Baltimore, designed by E. Francis Baldwin and Bruce Price and constructed between 1870 and 1872.

The stone-clad structure features a distinctive six-story bell tower, and its main sanctuary seats 750 with room for another 50 in the balcony.

Home to Episcopalians for most of its history, it was acquired by New Refuge in 1994 after Christ Church ceased operations.

Over at least three mayoral administrations, city officials and community leaders tried unsuccessfully to get New Refuge leaders to address building code violations and deferred maintenance issues ranging from peeling paint and broken windows to tiles falling off the sloping roof.

City steps in to repair Mount Vernon church after owner’s don’t (2/22/16)

Surrounded by scaffolding, historic Mount Vernon church goes up for sale (1/17/19)

The city put scaffolding around the building in 2013 to prevent falling roof tiles from hitting people on the sidewalk below. Church leaders said they didn’t have the funds to make repairs in keeping with the city’s preservation guidelines or to pay the city fines levied because of the code violations.

Ultimately, city officials decided not to include the property in the city’s annual tax sale so long as church leaders would put the building up for sale. They did so in 2019 under the understanding that they could continue to occupy the property and hold services until the building was sold.

Aerial view of the church with its soaring copper and slate-tile bell tower. (ajbilling.com)

Aerial view of the church whose deteriorating copper and slate-roof tower has long been a safety hazard. (ajbillig.com)

The original asking price of $1.395 million found no takers. Last June, the church’s founder and senior pastor, Archbishop Naomi DuRant, died. Because of the Covid-19 pandemic, the congregation had already stopped holding weekly services in the building.

The following month an auction was held, and two bids were received for $355,000 and $360,000. Because the auction was not advertised as an absolute sale, the church wasn’t obligated to accept the highest bid.

“By Divine Miracle”

Charles Billig of A.J. Billig & Co. Auctioneers, the firm that conducted the auction and represented the seller, said Olivet Assembly was not a registered bidder at the sale.

The ministry’s representatives learned about the property as a result of marketing and publicity about the auction and contacted the auction firm hours after the bidding deadline had passed, he said.

“By divine miracle, Olivet came to us, the space worked very well for what they wanted to do with it,” Billig said. “We worked through a somewhat lengthy closing process that, ultimately I think, yielded the result that both the buyers and sellers wanted.”

As for the Mount Vernon community, “I would think that they would be happy to have another user in that space, another religious organization. We’re certainly hopeful that the new owner will do the type of improvements that are commensurate with the surrounding buildings.”

The scaffolding has protected pedestrians from falling tiles and other debris for nearly a decade. (Ed Gtuns)

The scaffolding, shown here along St. Paul Street, has been in place for nearly a decade. The new owner’s repair timetable is not known. (Ed Gunts)

Because the building is located in a local historic district, any proposed changes to the exterior must be approved by the city’s preservation commission.

That was an issue for New Refuge because it meant that any replacement roof tiles likely would have to be made of slate and appropriate for the design and period of the building rather than less expensive options, such as asphalt shingles.

Billig said Olivet researched the building extensively and brought in construction experts as part of its due diligence before the sale. “The roof issues are known. There are other condition issues that will need to be addressed. I surmise that they’re very aware of what the building may need long term.”

Bible-centered Churches

According to its website, Olivet Assembly USA is an association of Bible-centered churches and “para-churches” that coordinates ministries in all 50 states and in  Africa, Asia, Europe and Latin America.

It began as a loose association of churches in the Presbyterian tradition “planted” by alumni of the Olivet Theological College and Seminary in California, known since 2004 as Olivet University.

The ministry became a formal network in 2007 and moved to its current headquarters in St. Louis last year.

The Baltimore location will be part of Olivet’s Mid-Atlantic division, which has regional offices in Washington, D.C.

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