(Photo courtesy Minnesota Historical Society)
At the corner of Seventh and Wacouta in Lowertown once stood the Union Gospel Mission. Late nineteenth-century predecessors of the mission included the Western Seamen’s Friend Society, which moved along the Great Lakes route, establishing missions; Bethel Houses (Bethel means “house of God”); a mission at the bottom of Jackson Street that operated out of a houseboat, providing food and housing to men who worked on the Great Lakes; and the Society for the Relief of the Poor.
The houseboat burned in 1900, prompting a search for a large facility that could house transients, homeless men, alcoholics, and other “down-and-outers” of society. Who would have guessed this would become an organization that reached out to thousands of men and women in all walks of life?
The Union Gospel Mission opened its first permanent home in 1910, an imposing five-story building at 235 East Seventh Street. For approximately seventy years in that location, and elsewhere today, the mission’s motto has been “Where the doors never close.” The Bethel Hotel section was always full of men who could receive “soap, soup, and salvation” — though not necessarily in that order. They had to attend a religious service in the beautiful red chapel, then shower and eat a simple supper in the basement restaurant before earning a night’s sleep on one of the cots.
In the early years, a rectangular sign extended about ten feet from the outside of the building between the fourth and fifth floors, proclaiming simply, God Is Love. This sign, with neon lights inside it, was purple, a beacon to all the traffic coming from the north. As cattle-laden trucks lumbered toward the South Saint Paul stockyards, the sign announced Union Gospel Mission, Jesus Saves, Bethel Hotel. From the east, where street traffic came off Lafayette Road or from the East Side on Seventh Street, drivers read Union Gospel Mission, God Is Love, Bethel Hotel.
I was fascinated by everything about the mission — I tutored boys there in the 1970s — and I fell in love with that sign. I saw the north side of it whenever I drove into town from my home in Roseville. When I learned in 1981 that the mission had found a new home and the building at Seventh and Wacouta was to be razed, I called the salvage company and asked if I could have the sign. The owner said, “Okay, if you move it.” And on a beautiful, cold day, November 22, 1981, I became the proud owner of the Union Gospel Mission sign. With the generous help of Dick Hoffman of Hoffman Electric, his two trucks, two cranes, and two men, that sign was moved to my house in Roseville.
What a sight! They picked up the sign with a huge crane, carefully raised it over my carport, and set it gently down lengthwise along the side of my house. It stretched from the front post on my carport to the back edge of my house. The neon lights were long gone; still, it was beautiful to me. My youngest son, fourteen at the time, was in the basement working with his friend Jay. Ordinarily quite interested in complex undertakings, they refused even to come upstairs and watch.
For the next several months, I tried very hard to find a permanent home for the sign. My house was on the market, and I planned to go to Florida for a few months to be a starving writer. (My mother said I was successful at half of that!) I sent out feelers to numerous places where I thought the sign might fit. The new mission over on Lafayette Road seemed a logical one. But the new superintendent let it be known that he had no interest in the sign or anything else I proposed. (I suspect that he had read the Oliver Towne column in the old Saint Paul Dispatch that had described my search and my appeal to art lovers to call me about the sign. Towne also wrote about some girls at school teasing my son about the sign: they had asked if and when we were going to hold services at our house. Andrew responded, “We’re having a service of sacrifice. We’re going to sacrifice a virgin; would you like to volunteer?” That stopped those questions!)
A friend suggested that I contact the Landmark Center, saying, “Wouldn’t it look great in the cortille down there?” Oliver Towne suggested, among others, a spot beside the Indian in the City Hall/Courthouse on Kellogg.
Finally, having exhausted all possibilities, the closing on my house and my move-out looming, I made the heart-rending call to the salvage company.
I still think often of my beautiful sign, and I hope and trust that it is resting in peace.
Jewel Hill Mayer was born and raised in Mississippi and came to Minnesota as a young bride in 1952. She considers herself a native. (Yah! You betcha!) She writes poetry, essays, novellas, and songs-accompanying herself on the autoharp — and is quite active in City Passport for people over fifty, living life to the fullest.