- Associated Press - Sunday, May 1, 2016

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - More than two years have passed since the bitterly cold night in January 2014 when firefighters battled the flames that gutted the Syracuse United Methodist Church, leaving only an ice-covered red-brick shell behind.

The corner of Sixth and Chestnut streets, where the building had stood for more than 100 years, is now a dirt lot peppered by weeds, the Lincoln Journal Star (https://bit.ly/1Nwhv6W ) reports.

While the old structure is gone, the congregation remains and with it a seed ready to be planted in that dirt to grow a new building they envision as a vibrant community center, meeting space, child care center and place of worship. All they need now is a little financial fertilizer.

The Syracuse United Methodist Church is nearly ready to begin construction. But early on in the process of deciding whether to rebuild, members said they wanted to avoid putting the church into debt.

They’re still about $200,000 short of meeting the construction price tag of about $1 million to $1.2 million, said Carolyn Gigstad, the church’s fundraising co-chairwoman. The church has about $900,000, of which $700,000 came from insurance and $200,000 from donations and pledges.



They’re planning a big fundraising push in the coming months, including a benefit dinner on June 5 with entertainment provided by their pastor, Gary Ganger, and his brothers.

Investigators from the Nebraska State Fire Marshal’s Office blamed old wiring in a chandelier near the front of the church for igniting the blaze that sent flames leaping above the tree line, threatening neighboring homes. The fire could be seen glowing on the skyline from a mile away.

Syracuse and the church grieved the loss of a building where multiple generations had attended worship, been baptized, married and attended funerals.

“It was absolutely horrible. It felt like someone had died,” Gigstad said.

It took six to nine months for church members to decide whether they would stay a congregation or disperse. When they did vote on Sept. 28, 2014, an overwhelming 62 of the 67 ballots cast supported rebuilding.

“We really ended up with a much tighter group, a lot more sense of each others’ worth,” Rev. Gary Ganger said.

As they work to rebuild, the congregation meets in a building downtown that once housed a veteran’s club and bar.

“We’re probably the only church in town with a dance floor,” congregation member Judy Moore joked during a recent interview.

It’s a cozy, informal space. Church members meet there before service for coffee and homemade pastries.

And the congregation has grown. Ganger counts membership at just under 200, with about 70 people showing up to services each Sunday.

Lincoln architect Gill Peace said the new building has been designed with a traditional exterior and flexible interior. It’ll be 6,000 square feet, about half the size of the old building.

Most of the exterior will be covered in a clapboard façade, but the entrance will be framed in red brick and stone, harking back to the former church.

Inside, Peace said, will be a stained glass window salvaged from the ruins of the old building.

The main worship area will be flexible and double as a meeting and event space.

The plans also call for a lobby, a stage with attached dressing room, two classrooms, two offices, a kitchen, restrooms and a mechanical room.

The church has talked about eventually opening a childcare center, something the community sorely needs, Gigstad said.

They have yet to set a construction schedule, said Bruce Neemann, a member of the building committee.

The congregation has to take one more vote approving the plans and do a little more fundraising before moving forward, he said.

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

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