Tree tragedy leads to church building project

Published 12:00 am Friday, May 25, 2012

By Mark Wineka
BEAR POPLAR — On a Thursday morning, as the Rev. Mary Louise Sitton walks outside at St. Luke’s Lutheran Church, members of her congregation literally appear around every corner.
On the east side of the church, John Owen and David Arrowood are spreading straw over a newly reseeded area.
“If we can get a good prayer,” Owen says, “I think it will come up green.”
On the western end, Sitton looks up and spies Grover Holt on the roof of the education building.
“Grover, what are you doing on that roof?” Sitton shouts.
Before Holt comes down for a conversation, Ruth Hodge exits from her car holding an old photograph and a 60-year-old diary her mother, Sadie Karriker, had meticulously kept.
“Hey, Ruth, how are you?” Sitton says.
All this weekday activity has a connection, one way or the other, to a hickory tree.
On a fateful morning — April 5, 2011 — a severe spring storm blew over that mammoth tree, sending it onto the top of the 1951 education building. The damage was so extensive that, for safety reasons, the congregation has made it off limits ever since.
Holt, head of the congregation council, said the tree’s impact pushed down the floor of the building 7 to 8 inches.
Church members judged, by counting its rings, that the uprooted hickory tree was 247 years old.
“It started out as a tragedy but turned into an opportunity,” Holt says.
Sitton calls what has happened within the congregation since the tree went down a transformation.
“It’s really interesting that the Holy Spirit has just been blowing around here,” she says.
After lots of deliberation and angst, common to most every church membership when it comes to building discussions, the congregation has decided to tear down its 60-year-old education building and replace it with two structures.
One will be a new, 8,787-square-foot fellowship building — more than double the size of the damaged edition. It will incorporate the front stained glass and columns from the current building.
“We’re trying to do this building with respect and compassion (to the past),” Sitton says.
The other building will be a new activity center, to be erected behind the parsonage. That metal building will provide an additional 8,238 square feet, complete with a basketball court.
The St. Luke’s congregation will say a final goodbye to the old education building at its June 10 service. The contents of the 1951 time capsule, inserted into the building’s cornerstone, also will be shared.
From church history, Sitton knows the time capsule includes a common service book, a bible, a copy of the service held for the groundbreaking, a history for the building, names of church officers, a church bulletin, numerous church periodicals and a list of participants in the groundbreaking.
Demolition will start on the 1951 building almost immediately after the June 10 service. The congregation will depend on its own men and equipment to tear down the building.
“We have a lot of people in this congregation who can do the work,” Sitton says of any project.
MCT Builders of Monroe will be contractor for both building projects, to be built simultaneously, starting in August. Construction is expected to take at least six months.
The new fellowship building will provide classroom and office space, a fellowship hall that can seat 250 people, a specially designated space for viewings and funeral services, a kitchen and pantry, storage and a covered driveway outside. It will be built at ground level, with no steps inside or out.
The church membership wants its new activity center to become a place not only for the church, but for the whole community. It could become the center of activities for young and old, Sitton says, plus an emergency shelter with portable generator capabilities, bathrooms and showers.
Sitton and Holt recall how the congregation went from thinking it had to repair and preserve the 1951 building at all costs to the decision that two new buildings were needed. Just fixing the 1951 building and essentially ending up with what the church already had would have cost roughly $600,000.
Instead, the price tag for a new, larger fellowship building will be about $780,000; the activity building, $230,000.
“God has guided us in every step,” Sitton says.
St. Luke’s Lutheran has started a capital campaign, funds that will be added to the insurance money for the damaged education building. Church members will be asked to make their final commitment to that campaign at the July 15 service.
Holt says his work on the roof that morning shows the church might require help in taking off the asbestos shingles, which will be considered hazardous materials.
Hodge has been scouring her mother’s old diaries to see whether she mentioned when the debt on the education building was retired. Later, as she’s talking with Holt and Sitton, she finds a newspaper clipping, the photograph for which matches the black-and-white glossy she had in her hand.
It appears the loan for the $31,000 education building was paid back in full in 1956, four years after the congregation first moved in. Hodge’s photograph shows then Pastor Misenheimer looking at the building’s deed with her father, M.T. Karriker.
St. Luke’s Lutheran Church was organized in 1869, and its sanctuary dates back to 1871. The beautiful stained-glass windows were made in Germany.
Longstanding families at St. Luke’s Lutheran include names such as Karriker, Graham, Lentz, Lyerly and Hoffner.
The church’s brick bell tower chimes on the hour between 9 a.m. and 7 p.m. At noon and 6 p.m., the tower chimes play hymns for 10 minutes.
A unique, three-spigot water fountain stands near the tower. It is dedicated to Robert Lee Karriker, a World War II soldier from the congregation who lost his life at the Battle of the Bulge.
One of St. Luke’s Lutheran’s most distinguishing features is the grove of hickory trees between N.C. 801 and the front of the church. The trees were planted long ago so church members could tie up their horses during the Sunday service, Sitton explains.
Whenever any of those trees have come down through the years, it’s not unusual to find horseshoes.
Sitton motions toward the church cemetery, where a freshly poured concrete slab waits for a new columbarium.
It’s a pastoral scene — the church cemetery in the foreground and farm silos rising up behind it.
Sitton notes that Bear Poplar is only 15 miles from Salisbury, Statesville and Mooresville, but it can be 1,500 miles from civilization if you want it to be.
“God’s country,” Holt explains.
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263.