- Associated Press - Saturday, March 1, 2014

FRIEND, Neb. (AP) - The acrid odor of charred wood is gone, replaced by the smell of fresh paint.

Arline Vossler and Dave McClatchey, longtime members of the United Methodist Church in Friend, brush the final coats onto the walls of the fellowship/kitchen area in the basement.

Upstairs in the sanctuary, a crew from L.J. Roth Restoration Service in Olds, Iowa, replaces the last of six huge wooden ceiling trusses destroyed by an early-morning fire on Dec. 4, 2012.

Joe Hammen, project manager for the company, told the Lincoln Journal Star (https://bit.ly/1dpz1SJ) they’re close to the originals, pointing to a blackened truss leaning against a tree across the street from the church. That one is destined for a local museum.

A piece of Friend’s religious history nearly vanished that December morning. A candle left burning overnight started a fire in the sanctuary, and by the time firefighters arrived, smoke was pouring out of the church’s three east windows that already had been cracked by the intense heat.

Nearly all of its 13 stained glass windows were destroyed or damaged, along with the sanctuary roof. Inside was a blackened, soggy mess.

Pews, carpets and wooden adornments were lost along with the pipe organ, hymnals and other religious objects. The 175-member congregation faced a difficult decision: restore or rebuild?

But first, they had to mourn.

“It’s a grieving process people go through before they can even start thinking about what to do. Some of the older folks were really sick. Some of these people have been members since it was built. That’s a pretty tough deal,” McClatchey said.

One of the first things church trustees did was to determine if the building was structurally sound. It was. Although the fire had destroyed much of the interior, the thick brick walls remained intact.

Next came the insurance question. Fortunately, the church had a policy that covered most everything except some extras, such as new wiring and a sprinkler system mandated by fire and building codes.

“Knowing the community and my congregation and their faithfulness, I knew in the beginning we would rebuild,” the Rev. Paixao Baptista said on a recent tour of the nearly rebuilt church, at 601 Sixth St.

“A lot of people grew up here, were baptized here, got married here, and died here,” he said. “It’s a large part of their faith.”

After the fire, the congregation held Sunday services in the chapel of Lauber-Moore Funeral Home, and the community rallied around them. Neighbors held fundraisers, donated money and volunteered to drag out soiled carpets and other debris.

“If you had been here when it first happened, you would wonder if we could do it,” Baptista said.

Construction began about six months after the fire, and soon, workers will install a new altar, pews and ornate woodwork.

Baptista said everything should be done by late spring, with the church restored as close to its original condition as possible.

Some of the stained glass windows are new, and some of the old ones have been restored. They’ll go in last.

“We don’t want to break them in the process,” Baptista said.

Vossler is glad some of the windows were saved, especially the ones on the east wall. During summer services, the sunlight streams through them, bathing the interior of the church in beautiful colors.

Baptista is amazed at the outpouring of support - not just from Methodist churches and the people and businesses in Friend, but from churches of different denominations and people in nearby towns.

So far, the congregation has raised about $114,000 to pay for things not covered by insurance, Baptista said, but he noted that the fire sprinklers alone cost $130,000.

He estimates resurrecting the church will cost nearly $1 million. He said fundraising will continue even after the project is finished.

The church plans to hold a rededication ceremony later this year. Baptista hasn’t given much thought to what he’ll say that day, but the experience of rebuilding a church has taught him this: “You need courage and the involvement of all members and we have that. People are very involved, especially the trustees and the fire restoration committee.”

Baptista, who also serves a congregation in Dorchester, is grateful to everyone who has helped, but he gives special thanks to his congregation.

“They are very patient and understanding and I am very grateful for that.”


Information from: Lincoln Journal Star, https://www.journalstar.com

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