Sara Groves: Hymns in a Tiny Sanctuary

The singer recorded her latest album in the small church building that she transformed into a community center for creativity

Sara Groves, a Minnesota-based singer-songwriter, has struggled with anxiety and depression her whole life. About four or five years ago, she went through the most difficult bout of depression she has ever gone through. “I just found myself in a place that I could not bootstrap my way out of,” she explains.

But Groves found some peace in the hymns that she knew and loved. Eleven of those hymns make up Groves’ newest album, Abide With Me, a collection of old songs sung with a modern twist.

Groves recorded Abide With Me in the sanctuary of a tiny church building in West St. Paul known as Art House North. She transformed the space into a recording studio for three months, renting equipment and setting up a control room that connected to the sanctuary. Art House North, as well as a place to record a song, has also become something more for Groves over the years. It’s a creative, communal space that represents overcoming. “It’s hard to find a place where the Art House ends and Sara Groves begins,” she says.

That’s because Groves, six years ago, kicked off this new, more spirited phase of her life when she and her husband actually founded Art House North together. The couple saw this small church on the corners of Armstrong Avenue West and View Street in West St. Paul and thought to make it a space for creativity. In order to buy it and get started, Groves and her husband moved their family from their suburban home to a house in St. Paul, just a few doors down from Art House. The family downsized by almost 80 percent to fit into the 14-feet-wide by 44-feet-long home. Since then, it’s become a part of the music, too.

Just looking at the cover of Abide With Me, you see the connection between Groves, her album, and Art House North. The cover features a black-and-white image of a half-built church juxtaposed with lose strings. The half-built building is Art House North more than 100 years ago, when it was known as Olivet Methodist Church. The image had been shard by someone on Facebook about a month before Groves began recording for the album, and it was quickly chosen as the cover.

Groves explained her choice to include a textile and threads on the cover online. She wrote, “A thread, a story, a yarn, a connection past to present. The embroidered frame is the shape of the finished building, now our Art House North.”

Six years after the doors of Art House first opened, a constant stream of events runs through the small space. Theater troupes practice and perform on the stage, a few square dances have been held in the space, and yoga classes are taught in the building.

The most recent program put on by the Art House was “Let’s Rock,” an eight-week class for kids to learn or improve their skills playing various instruments. After two months of group lessons, the kids put on a show that, according to Groves, was “a little bit more rock and roll” than the average instrumental recital. (Someone even brought a fog machine to set the mood.)

Art House North’s slogan is a “creative community for the common good.” Even Groves, the creator of the organization, still finds solace within the four old walls. You can hear those walls, harboring Groves’ gentle, sometimes fragile voice, as she sings the hymns on Abide With Me that have meant so much to her over the years, and helped her see light when darkness deepened.