New life

Published 12:00 am Saturday, June 8, 2013

BEAR POPLAR — A small wooden cross tells a story that starts with a tragedy and ends with a blessing.
It’s carved from the mammoth 247-year old hickory tree that crashed into St. Luke’s Lutheran Church’s education building April 5, 2011, destroying it beyond repair.
“This cross has gone everywhere with us,” the Rev. Mary Louise Sitton said. “It’s a wonderful symbol of new life — for us, for Jesus, for everyone.”
The cross has been placed inside the hallway of the new fellowship building, which will be dedicated during a ceremony Sunday.
The facility stands in the same spot where the education building used to be, but with 8,787 square-feet it’s much larger.
“The old building was two-thirds smaller,” she said.
The fellowship hall now holds up to 280 people instead of 130. That’s enough seating for all 230 active church members.
It also includes a stage, which Sitton said was one of the most requested items.
“We talked for years about adding it, but we would’ve had to add on to the building or reconfigure,” she said.
An upright piano sits in the corner of the room just left of the stage.
“The piano was in the part of the building where the tree came through and there’s not a scratch on it,” Sitton said. “It’s amazing.”
The columns and stained-glass windows, along with various pieces of furniture, were also salvaged before the 60-year-old facility was demolished.
“We are very fortunate not everything got destroyed,” Sitton said. “It was emotional for everybody because people’s fathers and grandfathers had worked on that building in 1951, so we tried our best to hold onto as much of that legacy as possible.”
Church member Richard Hansen said in the past when the church would host its fifth Sunday feedings people would be in the kitchen bumping elbows.
That problem is no more.

The new kitchen is decked out with stainless-steel appliances, both gas and electric burners, an energy efficient dishwasher and ample counter space.
“It’s the Taj Mahal of kitchens,” Sitton said. “Our hope is to open the doors to anybody in the community who needs a place to gather.”
Church member Richard Hansen calls the fatal tree fall a blessing in disguise.
“It’s been quite a wonderful experience,” he said. “We’ve got an awful lot of building now for what it cost us.”
The $1.2 million project includes an 8,238 square-foot metal building that will serve as the activity center.
The center, which is still being completed by the church’s Lutheran Men in Mission, will include a basketball court and volleyball nets.
Sitton said the facility will also have a kitchenette with a microwave, stove and refrigerator. The bathroom will include a generator-ready shower.
“If the power goes out, people will be able to come here and have a hot meal and shower,” Sitton said. “We really want it to be used.”
All of the buildings include energy efficient features such as monitor-censored lights and automatic thermostats.
The activity center and the new memory garden with a gazebo will also be dedicated Sunday.
The ceremony will start at 4 p.m. and will include hymns, the laying of the cornerstone and food.
“This is pretty exciting for us,” Hansen said. “No question about it.”
Hansen led a building task force in making decisions about the new structures. The group met every week for at least six months.
“We tried to have something designed that would answer all wants, needs and wishes,” he said.
It took a year before the project got off the ground while the church settled with their insurance company.
Sitton said they ended up with $600,000 instead of the $60,000 they expected to receive.
But the church still needed to raise money. So, they kicked off a capital campaign with the mantra “Faith to grow, hope to build, love to serve.”
In less than two years, the campaign has brought in nearly $400,000.
Church members have also donated time and materials to the project.
“People here see a need and they respond, it’s just incredible,” Sitton said. “We’ve seen the Holy Spirit in everything we’ve done.
The church broke ground on the project in September and moved into the buildings in May.
But there was a problem right at the start; the bricks didn’t match the main building.
Sitton said they went back to the drawing board, with the contractor building five sample brick columns outside in hopes of finding the perfect match.
“The third time through we got this brick and it was meant to be,” she said. “One of my goals was to make this building as similar on the outside as the other one so that it wouldn’t stick out like a sore thumb.”
While the new structures were being built, church members were crammed into the main building for Sunday School classes and meetings.
“We made sure to use every square inch we had,” Sitton said.
The additional space has been a welcome change.
“It’s exciting because for two years we had to go somewhere else to get any large group of people together because no place was big enough.”

Contact reporter Sarah Campbell at 704-797-7683.