Construction began on Jan. 10, 2024, and is expected to be completed before the end of the year. (Photo by Stephen Enright/Carolina News and Reporter)

The Basilica of Saint Peter – a century-old staple of downtown Columbia’s skyline – is undergoing a multi-million dollar expansion project in response to a surge in attendance.

The “Mother Church of the Midlands” raised around $7 million for a new building adjacent to the basilica, with ground being broken early last month.

“There’s a lot of history here,” said Father Gary Linsky, St. Peter’s pastor. “And a lot of hope and growing demand all over.”

The Catholic church, listed on the U.S. Register of Historic Places, is 117 years old. But its roots go back more than 200.

St. Peter’s congregation began in 1821, serving the community of Irish indentured servants digging the Columbia canal along the Congaree River. The original building — one of few to survive Gen. William T. Sherman’s campaign through the South during the Civil War — was torn down in 1906 to build a larger sanctuary for a growing Catholic community.

“I think the greatest significance is it is a physical embodiment of the presence of Catholicism in the state capital,” said John Sherrer, Historic Columbia’s preservation director. “A lot of generations of families have been been touched through their spiritual lives there.”

St. Peter’s was designated as a minor basilica in 2018 by the Vatican, making it the only basilica in the state. It’s a designation honoring its historical significance and role in the community.

Church officials said a strong sense of loyalty and, strangely enough, COVID made expansion necessary.

The congregation was beginning to outgrow the facilities by 2019, but Linksy said a post-COVID resurgence of church membership made the expansion a necessity.

Linsky said when the basilica shut down in 2020, maintaining as much of the mass experience as possible was critical.

“When we live streamed, we had the pipe organ, the cantor. We had altar servers, lectors. So it wasn’t the priest alone at the altar by himself,” Linsky said. “We grew loyalty, I think, because many others had a more simple experience. Anyone watching (our) mass on the livestream would have felt it was the same as what they were used to.”

“People were desperate to get back in droves,” Linsky said. “So actually our attendance is higher now than it was right before COVID.”

Growth also has been fueled by young families who stay and raise their children in the church.

“St. Peter’s has been the foundation of our relationship and our spiritual growth individually and as a family unit,” wrote Becky and Matt Morrison in a statement on the church’s website.

St. Peter’s members are only 36 years old on average, 13 years lower than the average for American Catholics, according to the Pew Research Center.

“This is an amazing thing to be in a church that’s growing,” Linsky said. He said many of the young families he has guided through the church’s marriage and family counseling programs have raised and baptized their children in the church.

“So after a decade of (me) being here, we’re really beginning to see the blessing of our investment,” Linksy said.

Demolition is minimal, with only breezeways being taken down in the courtyard. Changes to the basilica itself are being avoided due to its historic status.

A new three-story building will feature a media center, several classrooms and a much-needed 1,700-square-foot youth center on the top floor.

Courtney Nowak Khan, the church’s engagement and communications director, said the number of children coming on Wednesday nights made it difficult for adult education programs to happen simultaneously.

“We need spaces that are appropriate for young people to come in and have fellowship and grow in their faith,” Nowak Khan said. “Something that’s more appropriate than the more formal space that we have now. A place where youth and children can go and have fun activities without worrying about damaging a painting.”

“It will be great for the children and for the parish as a whole,” said parishioner Sam Emery in a text message. He said he hopes the investment in youth education will lead to “closer relationships with Christ and His Church.”

Linsky stressed that youth engagement and retention is one of the core reasons behind the church’s success and needs to be nurtured to further its growth.

“If you don’t keep your young people, your church is going to die,” Linsky said. “We want to be around for another 300 years, so this is really important.”

The estimated cost for construction is $8.2 million. Linksy said parishioners have exceeded the capital campaign’s $6.2 million goal, estimating having raised around $7 million. The remainder of the cost has been loaned to St. Peter’s by the Diocese of Charleston.

“At the end of the day, it is humbling to have people believe in the mission,” Linsky said. “People believe in our future and want us to be a valuable presence in the city.”

The building will be used by St. Peter’s Catholic School, the church’s K3-6th grade parochial school, during school hours. It will host church events on weekends and nights.

Progress on the still unnamed building is “right on target,” according to Linsky, with it opening by Christmas.

The new building will be built between the basilica and St. Peter’s Catholic School. (Top image courtesy of the Basilica of Saint Peter; bottom photo by Stephen Enright/Carolina News and Reporter)

The original church, completed in 1824, shared its designer Robert Mills with the Washington Monument in Washington, D.C., and Columbia City Hall. Photo circa 1890 (Photo courtesy of the Basilica of Saint Peter/Carolina News and Reporter)

The late Saint Pope John Paul II hosted mass at St. Peter’s in 1987 as part of a tour through the United States. The chair he used at St. Peter’s is still preserved in the basilica as a third class relic. (Photo courtesy of The State newspaper/Carolina News and Reporter)