The Remaking of St. Mary’s: Westminster Celebrates 50th Anniversary of Church’s Foundation Stone

PHOTO BY JIM MALVEN.

Earl O’Rourke stands next to the foundation stone placed 50 years ago. PHOTO BY JIM MALVEN.

BY JIM MALVEN
ASSISTANT EDITOR 

Fifty years ago last Thursday, the Right Rev. the Lord Bishop of London laid the first stone of the Church of St. Mary the Virgin, Aldermanbury on Westminster’s campus. Eight months later, the final stones were put in place, and the church opened to the public in 1969.

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the foundation stone being laid, Earl O’Rourke, Westminster’s first director of Buildings and Grounds, gave an address inside St. Mary’s about the process of rebuilding a Medieval British church at a small college in Central Missouri.


A Church for Churchill

Today, St. Mary’s serves as a venue for worships, lectures, musical performances and other events and houses the National Churchill Museum, a memorial dedicated to former British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill. However, it started out as a modest church in what is now London in the late 11th or early 12th century. St. Mary’s expanded throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance but was destroyed by the Great Fire of London in 1666. Renowned architect Sir Christopher Wren rebuilt and revamped the church within the next decade, but his masterpiece was ruined by the bombs of the German Blitzkrieg in 1940. The defeated structure stood in shambles for 25 years, as England’s postwar economy was so poor that no one could afford to refurbish or demolish it.

Finally, in 1965, at the request of Westminster President Dr. Robert Davidson, workers began removing St. Mary’s 7,000 stones and sending them to Fulton; they would be used in a memorial dedicated to Churchill, who delivered his famous “Sinews of Peace” address (“Iron Curtain Speech”) in Westminster’s Historic Gymnasium in 1946.

The idea of moving St. Mary’s to Westminster and using it as a memorial came about in 1961 when British architect Patrick Horsbourough showed President Davidson a “Time” article about war-torn Christopher Wren churches slated to be demolished. St. Mary’s was “the clear choice, its size perfect for the campus,” the National Churchill Museum’s website says. Horsborough was a major proponent of bringing the church over, and after four years, the college finally gained permission from the British Church and State and raised the necessary $2 million (equal to approximately $16.1 million in 2016) to complete the project. According to O’Rourke, all of the funds came from favors and anonymous donors.

The Hallmark Model

O’Rourke, who graduated from Westminster in 1951 and returned to the college in 1961 with a desire to improve the school’s then-rundown buildings, said that his involvement with St. Mary’s began in 1964. It was then that Hallmark Cards founder Joyce Hall produced a plywood and Styrofoam replica of what the church would look like. The model was six feet wide and four feet tall and featured a three-foot bell tower.

“(Hall) made the replica for Dr. Davidson; he volunteered to do it,” O’Rourke said, adding, “It was made very authentic to its size and color.”

O’Rourke said that the replica’s main purpose was to entice fundraising for the $2 million project: “It was a visual symbol to give to donors.”

Later in the year, O’Rourke and his wife drove the replica to the District of Columbia for a press conference with President Lyndon Johnson. But O’Rourke first faced the challenge of getting the replica into his station wagon. The model was too tall, so O’Rourke decided to cut an inch off the top.

“That was a ticklish thing,” he said of cutting the $2,500 model. He added that no one noticed his adjustment and that he kept that private for several years.

After the press conference, O’Rourke headed back to Fulton the same night, as a groundbreaking ceremony was scheduled at Westminster the next day. Hall’s model had already suffered an injury before the conference, but it barely survived the drive back. In the Cumberland Gap, O’Rourke had just started down a hill when he noticed a vehicle attempting to pass a line of semi-trucks chugging up the incline in the oncoming lane. O’Rourke said that both he and the other driver swerved to avoid each other but that they both swerved to O’Rourke’s right. Narrowly escaping severe damage, O’Rourke swung back toward the center, while the other driver spun his vehicle’s rear end into an embankment.

“I was thinking more of my wife and me than I was about the little model,” O’Rourke said. “But, I knew that if we were in a wreck, the thing would never make it. That was almost the demise of the little church again.”

At Westminster the following day, former U.S. President Harry Truman, former Westminster President Davidson and a few other Westminster administrators participated in the groundbreaking ceremony, which was held in front of the Columns. The groundbreakers each dug a shallow pit into the soil to symbolize the work being done and foreshadow the dream envisioned not just by members of the Westminster community but by many Americans.

“A lot of the politicians from Washington and from Missouri were very much behind this project,” O’Rourke said. “At that news conference, for instance, they had a lot of senators and representatives along with the President of the United States who signed a bill endorsing this project and to financially support it, and they’re still doing it.”

(Re)Construction

The following year, in 1965, workers in London removed the stones of St. Mary’s, noted their location and shipped the 7,000 20-ton limestone blocks to Norfolk, Virginia. From there, trains carried them to Mexico, Missouri, and then to Fulton, where they arrived in wooden pallets in 1966.

In the meantime, crews had to make room for the church. Its current location was occupied by West School, an elementary school that became surplus of Fulton Schools when McIntyre Elementary was built. Westminster rented classrooms for business classes in the early 1960s, but in 1965, workers demolished the building to make way for St. Mary’s.

Before O’Rourke and his crew began the process of assembling the stones into an organized structure, he received a call from U.S. Customs. Apparently, the pallets and the excelsior packing material had not been inspected when they landed in Virginia. O’Rourke said that he was told to postpone the process until the excelsior was examined but that he burned it so that Customs officials would have nothing to inspect.

The team could finally begin putting the jigsaw puzzle together, but doing so would be its most daunting task yet. What made this particularly difficult was that the stones on the top of the pile were from the top of the church. In order to reach the foundation and lower stones, workers had to spread the blocks across a parking lot where Backer Dining Hall and Mueller Leadership Hall are currently located.

Further challenges facing O’Rourke and his men included having an uneven foundation where the church was to be built and having unfinished stones for the North Wall – the North Wall leaned up against another building in London – which required O’Rourke to bring in limestone from Alabama (Missouri’s limestone is not white enough).

The last stone was placed in May 1967, and after crews recreated the bells, organ, glass windows, wood carvings and other parts of the interior, the Church of St. Mary the Virgin, Aldermanbury was dedicated on May 7, 1969 in front of a crowd of about 5,000 spectators in chairs and bleachers on West Seventh Street.

According to the National Churchill Museum website, only two aspects of the current structure stray from Wren’s design: an organ gallery in the West Wall and a window in the tower to illuminate the stairway. Woodcarvers relied on photographs, and the organ was constructed in part by Noel Mander, who was London’s fire warden during the Blitz of 1940 and ensured the church’s historical accuracy.

The Museum

Connected to St. Mary’s is the National Churchill Museum, which contains dozens of exhibits and hundreds of artifacts related to Sir Winston Churchill, who served as prime minister of the United Kingdom from 1940 to 1945 and 1951 to 1955. The entrance to the museum is located above ground near the intersection of Westminster Avenue and West Seventh Street, but the hallway quickly burrows underground and runs underneath the Quad before reemerging at Champ Auditorium.

“The reason we did it that way was that we didn’t have any place for the student body to gather, and when we had graduation activities, we had to set up outside and in the old gymnasium to accommodate if it was raining, so this is one of the things we could do,” O’Rourke said. “The seniors could robe here in inclement weather and come through the tunnel and come up into the auditorium.”

The museum was opened with the church in 1969 as the Winston Churchill Memorial and Library and was recognized by Congress at the National Churchill Museum in 2006.

Tim Riley, who became the museum’s director and chief curator this spring, said that the mission of the Churchill Museum is to keep the memory of Churchill’s positive qualities alive.

“He died 51 years ago, and we want to make sure that his memory is alive, that it doesn’t seem old,” Riley said.

He added that in order to preserve Churchill’s boldness, resilience and creativity, the museum is charged with archiving more than 10,000 objects, including letters, paintings, sculptures and various miscellaneous artifacts.

“It’s our mission to preserve and protect those objects, to make sure that they’re here for generations to come.”

Riley said that he is fascinated by Churchill because of Churchill’s creativity and the fact that he lived a long life and witnessed an incredible amount of change, but the word he mentioned several times was “boldness.”

He said that Churchill was a “very bold leader” and that that quality seems to rub off on visitors to the museum and has continually been practiced by Westminster over the years – in inviting Churchill to speak here, in having the longest segment of the Berlin Wall in North America here and in rebuilding a ruined British church stone-by-stone here.

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