First UMC Burlington returns to its sanctuary

September 09, 2013

Click to hear the conversation with Rev. Mike Orthel

Click here to see a photo gallery from the worship service

by Lisa Bourne*

The First United Methodist Church of Burlington, IA, held services in its restored church on Sunday, August 25, 2013. It was the first time in the sanctuary for the congregation since the arson fire that destroyed the historic church more than six years ago.

Rev. Mike Orthel, Burlington First UMC pastor, sat down recently to describe that first worship service back in the church, and the rebuilding and renovating of the historical structure.

He began by conceding that six years is a long time for a church community to be displaced from its home.

“It was (a long time),” Pastor Orthel, said. “For sure, long awaited. It finally happened.”

The ability to conduct services in the sanctuary after all this time was uplifting and joyous, refreshing and satisfying, he said.

There was a big turnout for worship that Sunday.

“We filled the house and had to set up chairs,” Rev. Orthel said.

While Rev. Orthel expects everyone in attendance had some connection to the Burlington congregation that day, there were a lot of new faces for him there.

“Some guests that were just happy that we’d finally arrived at that,” he said. “And a lot of members that might not have been in the church since it burned down that showed up.”

The process has been lengthy in determining where the church community would rebuild as well as all that goes into making it happen.

“It has been a long journey,” said Rev. Orthel. “As I say, six years and four months since we last met in that spot.”

The effort to rebuild in that location did not come immediately after the fire.

“There was a lot of discussion, a lot of folks that really saw that as an opportunity to go elsewhere,” Rev. Orthel said. “And there were long conversations held around that possibility.”

Rev. Orthel was not the church’s pastor at the time of the fire, having arrived at the Burlington congregation in the months prior to the vote was taken by the church on where to rebuild. The choice was between the original downtown location or in another part of Burlington.

He did not walk into a clean-cut situation. The result of the voting was close.

“It was a five-vote difference,” Rev. Orthel said. “So that added a lot to the anxiety and pressure.”

“I always held that we can do ministry in either place. So it’s up to you to decide where you want to go,” said Rev. Orthel.

“Like I say,” he sighed with relief. “It just was a good feeling to finally arrive and see so many happy faces.”

The specifics of the design and rebuilding process were determined by the result of the congregation’s vote on where to build.

“The vote to go back downtown was a vote to rebuild the church as it looked before,” said Rev. Orthel. “The design was in place to resurrect what was there.”

The fact that the congregation knew that original location was not adequate in size for current needs meant that they had to look at some other alternatives in the area, and ultimately chose to add in the unused levels of the department store that sat on the back side of the property as additional space.

Purchase of the building was made, with the church expecting to use the upper two to three floors and allow the department store to continue to operate on the ground floor. The building’s main floor faces Jefferson Street, where the downtown retail area exists.

“It was shortly after, though, that we made the purchase that the department store decided to go out of business and close their doors,” said Rev. Orthel.

This forced a closer look at how best use the building, bringing the decision at the forefront.

“We broadened our view a bit and prayed a lot about how can we actually as a church be at a retail location and not be an intrusion, but rather be cooperative in what we do,” Rev. Orthel said.

“We’ve had lots of marvelous visions for what we can become in that location,” he said.

A broadened outlook developed into the remodeling of the whole building for the purpose of a ministry center.

“Which will include things like a fair trade store that will be the retail component to that retail sector,” said Rev. Orthel.

A lot of the classical storefront large window concept that was part of the original department store building was retained in the renovation, in keeping with the idea that passersby will be taking part in window shopping.

The idea behind this is that First Methodist Church will be inviting people into its location along with neighboring retailers. Rev. Orthel said that conversations had been taking place with other organizations on Jefferson Street about collaborating in the messaging that will be communicated in the church’s window space.          

“So we will have a storefront look on that side even as we work with our hospitality ministries that we’re going to do out of that location,” he said.

Apartment and loft structures are being built and renovated throughout downtown Burlington, increasing the downtown population, and providing a ready-made outreach opportunity.

“People are surprised when we say that there are almost 120 downtown living locations within the downtown region, and many more to come,” said Rev. Orthel.  

“One of the things they lack is really a place where you can get together with family and friends, they’re restricted in that way,” Rev. Orthel said. “So we truly envisioned our hospitality ministry offering that space in the loft.”

“There’s a lot of exciting things going on in that structure,” he added.

The addition of this space allowed the congregation to move its fellowship hall and kitchen over to the newly acquired building, and enabled it to change what was a dining room and kitchen in the old church into an expanded elementary Sunday school-Christian education area.

“So we’ve got beautiful large-size rooms with a lot of gathering space, and exercise space,” said Rev. Orthel. “We’ve got room for many young children to come and utilize that.”

Hitting the ground running, the church has already begun to fill the renovated space with young people taking advantage of its youth programing right away.

“We moved our mid-week Wednesday night program, we call PB&J - Prayers, Blessings and Joys, by the way, also served with PB&J sandwiches, Rev. Orthel said. “But we moved that over there, that met yesterday in that space already, exciting everybody.”

“It went well,” he said.

The program currently serves approximately 30 youth in preschool through fourth grade.

“But our meeting Sunday prompted a number of parents to inquire as to when the meetings were and what was done,” Rev. Orthel continued. “So we expect that to grow fairly quickly.”

Rev. Orthel said church members came to the initial worship service in the new church on August 25 with expressions of how the sanctuary was just like they remembered it.

Upgrades the church was able to do the existing design further added to the success of the rebuild.

The pipe organ was expanded and more pipes exposed. The original balcony had formed a full oval, but the back portion had been previously sacrificed for Sunday school rooms. In the course of rebuilding the church the entire oval was restored.

“That excited a lot of folks to be able to see it that way,” said Rev. Orthel.

The congregation also added five large meeting rooms for adult Sunday school classes on the upper level of the church structure, another example of how the rebuild is actualizing into the church being able to also build on its mission and outreach.

“Just really accommodate a lot of things,” Rev. Orthel said.

He was told the organ designer who did the work for the church on this project is the grandson of the man who put the original organ in. While Rev. Orthel hasn’t yet confirmed this himself, he said the organ designer offered the church a price they couldn’t refuse in rebuilding the organ.

“He’s just done a marvelous job,” Rev. Orthel said. “I have heard him say that he thinks it’s at least one of the top three organs in size in the state of Iowa.”

“We now have that is 65 ranks in size, just amazing sound,” said Rev. Orthel. “And we’re quite excited about that.”

Some tweaking remains to be done in the church, including work in the loft that will need to be done by the end of the year to meet financing constraints; but for the most part the project is complete.

Some loose ends will not hold the church back in its new chapter of ministry. The sanctuary will be the base from which the church’s program will originate in the meantime, Rev. Orthel said. 

“We’ve got a full-out certificate of occupancy,” Rev. Orthel said. “And we plan to occupy!”

*Lisa Bourne is a member of the Communications Ministry Team, serving as Communications Assistant