St. Louis' skating sanctuary is gone, but the community forged in ash remains home
When he was 15 years old, Avian Duke visited Sk8 Liborius for the first time and fell in love. He’d never been to a skate park like the one inside the north St. Louis church.
“I was like, ‘Wow, this is insane,’” Duke remembered. “‘Never seen anything like this, probably won't ever see it anywhere else like this either.’”
He remembers seeing the half-circle of the vert ramp as soon as he walked in the sanctuary doors. “It was pretty cool. Then you had a mini ramp on the top balcony above you.”
Duke started skating when he was 8. His father introduced him to the sport, and he quickly became obsessed, learning tricks and improving his skills.
After his introduction to Sk8 Liborius, Duke spent more and more time at the church, building ramps and pipes for the park and cleaning up the debris to make way for additions.
On the evening of June 28, 2023, Duke was skateboarding with his friends inside the church. On June 29, all that was left of the sanctuary were the brick walls.
Sk8 Liborius started as the Catholic church St. Liborius, built in the late 1800s. In 2012, founders Bryan Bedwell and David Blum started converting the interior of the abandoned church into an indoor skate park.
For 23-year-old Duke, that church had been a “home outside home.” He skated there for hours at a time. In 2020, when COVID-19 lockdown restrictions started going into effect, he persuaded Blum to let him live inside the rectory of the church because he worried the border between Missouri and Illinois would close, cutting him off from skateboarding. After six months, he moved back to his home in Alton.
“Home to me is a place where you feel safe and comfortable,” he said. “It was a safe place. [I could] come in here and skate anytime that I wanted to and just pretty much do what I wanted with respect.”
For Duke, one of the main attractions of skating was the sense of community he felt.
“It was really like a home. I had a key, and then I’d just invite friends and stuff over, and we just hang out, skate, listen to music,” he said. “It didn't really matter how long we were here, so it was just really nice.”
Duke said the skaters lifted each other up, always being there to offer help.
“With skateboarding, you know, it was always viewed as, ‘Oh, yeah, those guys are skaters or whatever. They're below dog food,’” Duke added. “They just don't judge people because they know we're all weird in our own kind of ways. Everybody's just welcoming is no judging at all.”
That camaraderie kept Duke coming back to Sk8 Liborius, and eventually he joined the organization’s board. Then on June 29, he woke up to a slew of messages, telling him the church had burned down.
That morning, Duke and one of his friends from the group went to the church, sneaking past the firefighters to see the destruction with their own eyes.
“They started spraying certain areas of buildings. Bricks were flying off,” he said. “It wasn't a good idea, but we just had to come in here and check it out.”
Officials said the fire started in the rectory’s kitchen before sparks blew onto the roof of the sanctuary, setting it ablaze.
For now, Duke said the Sk8 Liborius board doesn’t know what their future holds. While the rectory of the church is somewhat intact, all that remains of the sanctuary are the walls and a space filled with rubble. Fundraising efforts to rebuild the skatepark are underway. Meanwhile, he and other members of the group have scattered, skating at different parks around the St. Louis area.
However, he has appreciated the outpouring of support from the community. So many volunteers have turned out to help that there isn’t much more they can do, Duke said.
Despite losing the physical space of the church, Duke said he still feels a sense of home with the skating community he’s built.
“I think everybody in the community has gotten a lot closer after this — knowing that there's still hope to do something with the place," he said. "It's like a whole other different family.”