The downtown St. Paul “Church District” redefining the area

Downtown St. Paul has a church district

After news broke of megachurch River Valley moving into the McNally Smith College of Music space on Exchange Street, we noticed something we hadn’t before: This northern section of downtown St. Paul has become dominated by houses of worship; a “church district” that certainly gives downtown residents plenty of options through which to reach a higher power.

The St. Louis Catholic Church and Central Presbyterian Church (which sit next door to one another) face River Valley on the perpendicular 10th Street. The impossible-to-miss Church of Scientology is across Wabasha Street on the other side. The stately Assumption Church is just a few blocks down.

Assumption is one of the oldest buildings in downtown (dedicated in 1874), and is actually one of our favorite pieces of architecture in the area. Some of the city’s most interesting, beautiful, and historic buildings come in the form of its churches: We’re also big fans of the rectory at the St. Louis; you don’t have to be religious to believe in something greater than yourself when looking at the work that went into these places, and the effect of walking through their archways.

And, of course, the incredible Saint Paul Cathedral still watches over the city center from its perch on John Ireland Boulevard atop the hill as downtown’s majestic crowning jewel.

Church and theater (together at last?)

But “beautiful” and “historic” aren’t words that come into play when discussing this latest development. It’s not meant to be, nor has any need to be, aesthetically pleasing: Maximum exposure and impact is the name of the game here; reaching as many people as possible for a Sunday service that is recorded live every Saturday (in Apple Valley) and replayed the next morning at each of the church’s nine(!) locations.

Hence the nomination as a “mega” church (which sounds more like an early 90’s Nintendo game than someplace to go to find solace, peace, or any kind of connection to the great spirit in the sky. We’d play that game. But we digress.)

St. Paul’s unofficial Theater District, comprised of the Ordway Center for Performing Arts, the Fitzgerald Theater, the History Theater, and the Park Square Theater, with the Landmark Center, Vieux Carre, and a few other performance venues scattered in between, is now sitting side-by-side, and overlapping with, this developing church district. McNally Smith made sense here – along with the nearby Conservatory for Performing Arts and the Creative Arts High School, these spaces worked well together to provide performance space for students and up-and-coming artists, and created a culture of give-and-take with inspiration and representation for the arts as a whole in downtown.

Not that Sunday service doesn’t provide inspiration; it is simply safe to say that these two different pieces of the public sphere rarely offer the same experience to the same people (though religious service can certainly come across as a performance, at times…)

There’s nothing wrong with this – plays at the History Theater, which will continue to share the building with River Valley, at least until the lease expires/one of them moves to a new location, won’t coincide with services. And there’s absolutely no reason that a megachurch moving in will affect the programming at the forward facing Fitzgerald Theater, or anything else nearby for that matter.

(And we’re still more perturbed by the massive, hollow, oft-barren Church of Scientology connected by single skyway across the street that looms over the area like a new-age ruin.)

This area is now defined by two things: The number of churches it has, and the number of theaters. And, naturally, the people that frequent both sides.

Though, as a church, River Valley likely won’t be paying any taxes to the city. And we wonder how many (nearby) local businesses members of this church (they average about 10,000 people at their other locations) will patronize.

Regardless, St. Paul is doing a great job maintaining its reputation as an ever-changing, always-interesting and eclectic little piece of the universe.

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