In the Saint Liborius Catholic Church in St. Louis, Missouri, there is a skatepark underneath a Gothic vaulted ceiling and graffiti painted next to 19th-century stained glass windows.
Since 2012, the abandoned church has been home to Sk8 Liborius, an underground skatepark and community center, and now, the organization is planning to turn it into an arts hub for under-resourced youth.
The Saint Liborius church was established in the 1850s for a wave of German immigrants who had arrived in St. Louis. It was completed in 1889; in 1890, a rectory was added, and in 1905, a convent was built. A declining Catholic population — alongside a declining population in the city in general — forced the church to close in 1992.
The church became a women’s shelter, and when that closed due to mounting maintenance costs, they handed over the keys to David Blum, who had been working with an urban farming center next door. Blum, a welder for the St. Louis City Museum — which exhibits massive sculptures made from old industrial and architectural materials — came into possession of the church as well as the rectory and convent in 2012.
“It took two years of actually scraping pigeon poop out of the place,” Joss Hay, one of the three co-owners of Sk8 Laborious, told Hyperallergic. The roof and bell tower needed heavy repairs, too. It took two years to build the skatepark.
In early 2014, Blum partnered with Bryan Bedwell, and the park ran underground, funding itself through events.
“There’s only so far that running underground raves and illegal punk shows will get you,” Hay said. In 2016, Blum and Bedwell decided to make their organization official, registering Liborius Urban Art Studios as a 501(c)3 non-profit.
Blum, Bedwell, and Hay’s vision for Sk8 Liborius reaches beyond just skatepark: They want it to be a place where artists and musicians can make their art and where people can learn trades like welding and woodworking. They also want to turn the church into a bed and breakfast that will fund the arts center.
In 2021, St. Louis had the highest murder rate in the United States. Hay told Hyperallergic that St. Louis doesn’t have enough arts and community centers for kids.
“A common thing we often hear from arts organizations is, ‘How do you get kids in the door?’” Hay said. “That’s the hardest part.”
“But the second you walk through our doors, it’s inspiring, and it’s very obvious this place was made with love, and it’s very obvious that the people care about the local community,” Hay continued. “We hope that we can inspire the local youth to dream bigger than they’ve ever dreamed before.”
Before Sk8 Liborius can officially open its doors, it needs to get the old church up to city code. The group has launched a GoFundMe to raise $500,000 for the repairs, of which they’ve raised $45,000 so far, and supporters of the project are volunteering to help with construction around the site.
In terms of getting city officials to support the unconventional initiative of a church-turned-skate park, Hay says there’s been more enthusiasm than resistance.
“I look at them like they’re very strict parents that have to follow the rules but just want you to succeed,” Hay said. “When it comes to bureaucracy and the red tape, they make us jump through all the flaming hoops, but … there’s not a single person in the city that doesn’t want us to succeed.”
Hay told Hyperallergic a story about a group of nuns visiting the church a few years ago.
“They were so happy at the effort we were putting in to keep the roof on this place,” he said, citing leaks that filled five-gallon buckets in five minutes.
“One of them turned around and said, ‘Underserved urban youth — that’s your congregation then,’” Hay recounted. “I just think that’s an incredible quote, and it’s exactly what we’re going for.”
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