October 7, 2016

‘Smiles, hugs and happy tears’ celebrate the rebuilding of this Iowa church

With a structure built in 1903 in the tiny town of Churchville, Iowa, and relocated by horse-drawn wagon some 30 years later to a more populous area that is now the town of Martensdale, St. Paul Lutheran Church had a rich history.

Then, on a late October evening five years ago, a new chapter in the church’s history was written, though hardly a pleasant one. A fire of indeterminate cause consumed the then 108-year-old church building and left it a total loss.

“Many of the church members were there,” recalls Kim Downs, who was then St. Paul’s council president. “It was very sad to see the firefighters breaking the stained glass windows in order to vent the fire properly.”

As the fire raged, the steeple and belfry collapsed, and the church bell fell. Then, with the floor of the sanctuary about to give way, the firefighters were ordered to evacuate. “They sounded a loud alarm–I’ll never forget it,” Downs says, “and all of the firemen had to come out of the building.”

As one of the firefighters exited the church, he noticed a Christ candle.

“It was sitting by the back sacristy door,” Downs says, “and he set it outside. It was in a wooden box, which got a little bit charred on the outside, but the candle itself was intact.”

In the end, only the bell and the Christ candle survived the blaze.

“We lost all of the papers, all of the history of the church,” Downs says. ”The names of all of the people over the 108 years that had been born, baptized, confirmed and married, all of those records were gone.”

Fortunately for Downs and her fellow St. Paul congregants, support was not far away. The Rev. Eric Carlson, Assistant to the Bishop of the Southeastern Iowa Synod, proved to be an invaluable resource, leading the congregation through the process of grieving for the loss of their church and just as importantly, helping them find a way forward.

Pastor Carlson introduced St. Paul to the team from the Mission Investment Fund, including MIF Regional Manager Paula Kitt and MIF Church Building Consultant Anne Gerrietts. The church considered MIF as a potential source of construction financing along with two local lenders. “MIF came to the top of list,” Downs says. “MIF had many more resources, and their mission was more closely aligned to our mission as the church.”

Gerrietts worked closely with St. Paul. “We talked a lot about their ministry,” Gerrietts recalls. “They were so good about thoughtfully and prayerfully considering what kind of building they needed to build to support what they do today, as opposed to just rebuilding what they used to have.” In MIF, St. Paul saw a partner who helped the church proceed methodically through the decision-making process and work effectively with architects and contractors.

“We were a group of individuals and two very senior pastors who had never been through a rebuild process,” Downs says. “We felt that MIF was there to help make sure that we had thought through all of the options before coming to important decisions. MIF was not only a team member but an advocate for us. It was a very good partnership.”

St. Paul also saw the opportunity to invest in MIF and assist other congregations in the process. Funds invested in MIF are used to make loans to build and renovate ELCA churches.

St. Paul broke ground on the rebuild in May 2013. The first services were held in the new space on Christmas Eve 2015, amid “lots of smiles and hugs and happy tears.”

The new, fully handicapped-accessible building was constructed with insulated concrete forms, which has significantly reduced heating and cooling costs. And because the old wooden pews have been replaced with interlocking padded chairs, the worship space can quickly and easily be converted to fellowship, classroom or meeting space.

Looking back now at that horrifying night in 2011, Downs realizes something that neither she nor any of her fellow congregants could have understood at the time—the fact that a devastating fire could be a blessing.

“We were so focused on taking care of a 108-year-old building that we were inwardly focused,” Downs reflects. “The fire and the discernment process and the reflection and the prayerful time we had during the decision-making have allowed us to think more outwardly, more about our mission as a congregation.

“It was a difficult thing to go through, but as our pastor, Pastor Ron Mohr, says, there has to be death for there to be resurrection. And I really, truly feel like we have been a resurrected church.”