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Sunday, August 27, 2006

A Trial by Fire at St. John's Church

A joyous report of a church which has a rebirth today; after a trial by fire, they said they were returning; and they did. Quincy, Illinois is in the southern part of that state. PAT

By Steve Eighinger
Herald-Whig Staff Writer

At first glance, the sheer beauty is almost breathtaking.

The striking, clean look of the open-beam ceiling dominates the rebuilt nave and altar areas at St. John's Episcopal Church, Quincy's oldest house of worship and one that was gutted by fire four years ago last week.

"This is God's house," said the Rev. H.W. "Sandy" Herrmann, almost in a whisper. "This is where he resides, and there is something special about that."

God's house is open for business again.

The congregation and community will celebrate the rebirth of St. John's during a 4 p.m. service today, a gathering that will mark the rededication and consecration of the church at Seventh and Hampshire, which was originally built in 1852-53. The church itself dates to 1837.

Preceding this afternoon's rededication and consecration will be two morning services at 8 and 10:15.

The $5 million project, beset by construction snafus and assorted other delays, comes to fruition this afternoon when each one of its new 384 seats is expected to be filled.

For Herrmann, it will be an emotional day. This afternoon's service marks the end of his 11 years as rector of St. John's.

Earlier this year, he accepted a pastorate at St. David of Wales Episcopal Church in Denton, Texas, but wanted to stay through the rebuilding of St. John's.

The Rev. Jim Derbyshire of Peoria will serve as interim rector at St. John's while a replacement for Herrmann is sought.

"It's an exciting time," Herr-mann said. "It's a new beginning in a new space, and there is a new mission."

Among the scheduled guests at today's service are Mayor John Spring, former mayor Chuck Scholz, Fire Chief Scott Walker and Police Chief Rob Copley.

"Everyone along the way has been so gracious and so many people have assisted, people who wanted us to get this place back together," Herrmann said. "The city, in particular, has been so helpful."

Also on hand will be the Rev. Keith Ackerman, bishop of the Diocese of Quincy, which is headquartered in Peoria. Ackerman will officiate today's ceremonies, which will begin with a half hour of music at 3:30. A reception will be held in Upson Hall after the service.

St. John's member Don Gnuse, senior warden at the church, said he will always remember other churches in the community stepping forward after the fire. He said denominational lines were non-existent.

Gnuse said St. John's members were offered places to worship and given donations and other forms of assistance from other churches and individuals in the community to help in the rebuilding effort. More than $25,000 was given.

"We would never have seen this day if others had not come forward," Gnuse said. "That's what it's all about and it has left a lasting Christian witness."

Gnuse said it is now time to look forward.

"We were sad four years ago, and there were some tough times," he said. "Now, it is time to rejoice."

The new St. John's is a product of countless workers and technicians, starting with nationally recognized architect Walker C. Johnson of Johnson Lasky Architects in Chicago.

"Walker Johnson is an architect grounded and trained in historic church preservation," Herr-mann said. "He helped us design an interior that matched the historic significance of the period of the 1850s."

At the time St. John's was originally built, the church bell tower and nave cost a combined $10,000.

"We were able to maintain the historic exterior while im-proving on the interior," Herr-mann said. "This is now a 21st century user-friendly church."

Also playing important roles in the reconstruction were architect Darin Prost of Architechnics and general contractor Greg Fischer of A. Fischer Builders, both of Quincy.

"A lot of good friendships have been built through all of this," Greg Fischer said.

Peters Heating and Air Conditioning, Brown Electric, Sparrow Plumbing and Heating, paint contractors A.H. Kemner and Sons, Bill Vonderhaar Masonry, Blick's Construction, Abbey Carpet, Sohn Carpet World, Adams Florist, Brennan and Brennan Law Firm, Classique Signs, Doors-N-More, Doyle Renovating and Construction, Gem City Concrete, Heinz Electric, JK Creative Printers, McClean Concrete, Mitchell's Quik Print, Tel Tech Communications, the Business Centre and Moore's Floors were other contributors to the rebuilding effort.

Each detail of the fire and the ensuing rebuilding project is etched in Herrmann's mind.

"The fire started at 4:04 a.m. Aug. 23, 2002," Herrmann said. "That's when lightning struck the church."

The incredible irony was that fire crews were called to the church twice during the 12 hours preceding the fire. Smoke alarms had gone off, but both times firefighters could not find anything wrong after walking through the building.

The disaster wound up being the proverbial blessing in disguise. Numerous problems were uncovered during the investigation into the fire, including how unsound the structure was.

"The termite damage was so bad that we were told a wind of 40 mph or more could have caused the building to implode," Herrmann said.

Other serious problems also surfaced. Some of the walls were bowed, others needed to be leveled. Later, a debris field 90 feet beneath the surface was discovered, which caused delays in the reconstruction, which originally figured to take between 18 and 24 months.

During the four years of work, services were held in the parish hall. Out front of the damaged building there was always a friendly reminder to passers-by. A sign read "We're Still Here."

"At times, the rebuilding was a painful process," said Ben Miller, junior warden of the church. "But we put our faith in God and (today) is going to be a glorious day."

Maintaining the church's intricate design and workmanship were paramount from the beginning, Herrmann said. For example, all of the church's stained-glass windows were re-moved and warehoused in Peoria. They later were sent to a company in Fairfield, Iowa, to be cleaned and repaired.

Much of church's interior and roof were destroyed, but the stone walls and bell tower were left standing. They served as the framework for the new church.

The pews that will be occupied today came from a church in Joliet that had closed.

"When I contacted (officials) in Joliet, I found that the church was from the same period as St. John's and I asked them if we might be able to purchase the pews," Herrmann said. "After explaining to them what had happened with the fire, they said we could have the pews ... at no cost. They were happy to assist."

Herrmann returned to Quincy last Wednesday to tie up loose ends and begin final preparations for today's service. As he walked through the reminders of a four-year journey, he stopped and looked as construction workers laid the last carpeting, adjusted lights and swept up debris.

There was an obvious feeling of accomplishment present, one that seemed to grip all who have been involved.

"From what we had in the old church, to what we have now ... it's almost as if it is a completely different building," Miller said.

In many ways, it is.

In Herrmann's eyes, there is a reflection of more than simply fulfilling a goal. When he surveys the new St. John's, he is, at times, almost at a loss for words.

"When you walk in, you sense you are in a holy place," he said.


Contact Staff Writer Steve Eighinger at seighinger@whig.com or (217) 221-3377


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