You might think there would be something vaguely off-putting about drinking in a bar furnished with the trappings of an old church. But as I sat at the Church Key -- where everything from the light fixtures to the floor was salvaged from St. Aloysius Gonzaga -- there didn't seem to be anything odd about ordering a whiskey.
The odd thing was that it was 11 p.m. on a Thursday and the bar was empty. Of course, this was Thursday, October 12, and the Cardinals had taken a beating by the Mets. The bartender assured me that, just an hour earlier, the bar had been full of people watching the game. But after the game ended, she said, the patrons were all so disheartened that they went home.
The footrest below the bar is made up of kneelers, the bar itself comes from the old choir loft, and the booths are the old pews. These have crosses carved on the sides, but other than that, nothing really screams out "church."
Carrie Bellon-Wappel, one of the owners, recently found some drinks recipes with names like Blood of Christ and Blood of Satan, but these did not make it onto the cocktail menu. "We decided to go in a different direction," she says carefully.
I asked the guy next to me whether he knew where many of the materials came from. He pointed to the booths. "Obviously, there's pews and shit," he said, before explaining that even the name isn't a reference to the demolished church. "A church key is actually just a bottle opener," he said. "Hence the T-shirts."
Indeed, the bartender was wearing a shirt with a picture of a bottle opener, along with the bar's tagline: "Heavenly Spirits. Sinful Merriment."
The bar, at 4127 Manchester Avenue in the city's burgeoning Grove district, opened a little over a month ago, after about a year and a half of work. Carrie's father, Don Bellon of Bellon Wrecking & Salvage, did the demolition job at St. Al's. As the church came down, the bar went up.
Bellon has a long history of reusing materials from demolished buildings in somewhat unusual ways. He started by using the materials he salvaged to refurbish his own house. "But there's only so much you can do to a house," Carrie says. Eventually Bellon moved on to his house's yard, where one day he outlined the shape of a pool with Bisquick, brought a tractor home and started digging.
These days much of his office, on the corner of Vandeventer and Chouteau, is constructed from salvaged materials. The same is true of the deli next door, which his family opened three years ago.
Recently, Carrie says, some priests came into the deli and asked what had happened to the materials from St. Al's. Carrie told them about the Church Key. "They stepped back for a minute," she says. "But then they were fine with it. I think they just like it being used."
As it turns out, last Thursday the material got more use than the priests might have expected. Near the end of the baseball game, when it started to look bad for the Cardinals, all of the guys at the bar got really upset. The bartender, Tonia Jacobs, decided to take matters into her own hands.
She directed all the men onto the footrests. "There are kneelers beneath you, gentlemen," she told them. "Kneel down there and pray."
The guys all kneeled down and started praying. "It was funny because their heads came up just above the level of the bar, so that was all I could see," Tonia said later. But not even a row of grown men kneeling down to pray in a bar changed the outcome of the game -- not that night, at least.
This has got to say something, although I'm not sure what. Maybe it just speaks to how strongly the men all felt about the Cardinals. When I arrived at the bar later that night, someone told me that if I became a Cardinals fan (I'm new in town), it would be the best decision I had ever made.