by Caleb Sebora
HOWARD LAKE, MN At the moment, the sanctuary of St. James Lutheran Church in Howard Lake is a metal jungle. Poles crisscross and zigzag through the place of worship as if they had been growing through the walls and ceiling, into a thick, dense forest that no one had bothered to chop down. Wooden planks are placed sporadically throughout the beams, seeming to act as a sort of scaffold. The carpet is splattered with paint, and a big plastic tarp covers the pipes of the organ.
What is seemingly a display of disarray is actually the process of rebirth.
St. James Church was built in 1902, making the building 114 years old.
“It’s a stately building,” said Kelly Gruenhagen, who is the chair of the renovation committee at St. James in Howard Lake.
But a building of that age doesn’t stay stately on its own.
“[The church] needs regular repairs. Every 30 years or so we do a massive renovation. The last one was in 1986,” said Gruenhagen.
Originally, when the committee began talking about making the renovations, the project was only going to include the sanctuary. That was two years ago.
“We quickly put a proposal before the voters, and it was voted down,” Gruenhagen said.
However, it wasn’t voted down because the parishioners thought that what the committee wanted to do was too much it was voted down because the parishioners thought that even more could be done.
“There were some concerns about the lack of handicap accessible areas and bathrooms . . . The roof had been leaking for some years, and we’ve had some severe water damage . . . The sanctuary walls had some cracking, and the altar and pulpit needed some work. In 30 years, little nicks and dings added up to visible eyesores. The upholstery was torn and stained, the carpet was wearing in places and bleached from the sun,” said Gruenhagen. “It was just time.”
After compiling a list of the needed repairs and making up proper plans, the committee presented its new renovation proposal this past March and it passed.
The proposal included the entire sanctuary, the sacristy, the narthex, both bathrooms, the addition of a handicap-accesible restroom, and the removal of several walls “to help the flow and the opportunity for fellowship,” according to Gruenhagen.
The maintenance and updates started around mid-May with some asbestos removal. The bulk of the project took off when Riehle Decorating, a family-owned-and-operated business based in northeastern Iowa, came in at the end of the May. By the end of the project, every surface will be painted or varnished, according to Gruenhagen.
While the renovation is happening, the congregation has been worshiping in the school fellowship hall/gym.
With several other contractors and many volunteers, the project is scheduled to be finished before the start of the St. James school year.
“This project would be impossible without the volunteers,” said Gruenhagen.
“We expect the congregation to be pleased with the updates. The plan was to bring the style back to the original design, reminiscent of the middle of the last century. We re-exposed oak doors, uncovered stained glass windows, which were hidden in the 1966 narthex addition, and added more colors and gold leaf. We also shortened pews for two handicap- accessible areas,” Gruenhagen said of the updates.
Gruenhagen also said the renovations will allow for more fellowship.
“The extra space available in the narthex to spend more time talking to other members of the congregation before and after the service will be very welcome.”
A small kitchenette for coffee and light snacks will also be added.
According to Gruenhagen, the renovations will be worth it not just because the church will look completely new, but because it has offered the church an opportunity to come together and delight in what they have.
“The entire experience has been incredibly rewarding . . . The project has given many members of St. James the chance to spend more time with each other and to learn about the history of the building,” Gruenhagen said. “God has blessed us richly over the years, and we are aware of what we have.”