SPRING GREEN — A baby named Jesus has been front and center this weekend as Christians worldwide celebrate their Savior’s birth.
But for one congregation, a second gift has arrived this Christmas season. It’s not as important as the first but has been anticipated for months, helps ease the pain of a devastating fire and returns church activity to the historic corner of Monroe and North Lexington streets in this Sauk County village’s downtown.
There are even hints of Frank Lloyd Wright.
Cornerstone Church is once again whole through a groundswell of support from members, non-members and those who prior to the Nov. 14, 2015, fire had no connection to the community or the church.
The combined efforts over the past year mean no more gatherings in the old post office building down the street, while the new design and construction have created an accessible, one-floor facility where steps are virtually non-existent and a ramp leads to the baptismal tank at the front of the sanctuary.
The worship space was still a construction zone last week, so the first service in the new 7,700-square-foot church building was to be held Christmas Eve in the spacious fellowship hall that includes a fireplace, kitchen and stained concrete flooring. The sanctuary, however, should be ready for Pastor Derek Miller’s sermon and songs from the congregation on New Year’s Day morning. An open house is scheduled from 2-6 p.m. on Jan. 8.
That’s pretty good work considering 13 months ago the site was a pile of charred ruins, the bell had fallen from its tower and was buried under debris and insurance claims had not yet been settled. Construction didn’t officially begin on the new $840,000 facility until June 26.
“It’s been a whirlwind and a blur,” Miller said last week during a tour punctuated by the sound of circular saws and drills. “It’s been completely exhausting but also invigorating when we hit different points. It’s making the Lord more accessible to people.”
Cornerstone is a non-denominational church planted by Miller in 1999 in this artisan and architectural enclave of 1,900 people near the Wisconsin River. But while the church — known for its missionary work in Haiti, Romania and Central America — is relatively young, it had been housed on the west end of the downtown since 2003 in one of the community’s oldest buildings.
The main church was constructed in 1868 by the First Congregational Church, which formed the village’s first church in 1856. The Welsh Congregational Church merged with the First Congregationalists in 1898 and, in 1901, the Welsh church building, constructed in 1856, was moved to the First Congregational Church to create the church’s north wing. A basement was added to the entire church structure in 1924.
In the early 2000s, the Congregationalists at what is now known as Spring Green Community Church had considered removing the church and the school from the block to build a new facility but instead chose to build in another location in the village. That opened the door for Cornerstone in 2003 to buy the building.
Everything was good until last fall. That’s when, less than two weeks before Thanksgiving, the historic structures were destroyed by an early morning fire that grew into a spectacular blaze, lit up the downtown and drew volunteer fire departments from throughout the region. No one was injured but the inferno caused an estimated $900,000 in damage. A cause has not been determined but equipment being used in the restoration of the church’s wood floors may have overheated a junction box in the downstairs and caused an electrical fire, Miller said.
What followed wasn’t surprising. In fact, it’s what epitomizes a small community.
The nearby St. John The Evangelist Catholic Church almost immediately offered up its church for Cornerstone’s temporary home and those who attended a Lenten ecumenical service at the church gave $250 as part of a free-will offering. A group of Lutheran women collected $250, Bethany Lutheran Church in Brodhead sent $500 and the Catholic church in Highland chipped in $243. The Congregationalists raised $4,000, while other Cornerstone members donated to help collections reach about $30,000.
“There’s a lot of ownership all around the community,” Miller said. “There’s so much history on this spot and that’s what means so much to so many people.”
There also have been notable in-kind donations.
Craig Deller, a Smithsonian-trained conservator who has worked on stagecoaches at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago and furniture in Abraham Lincoln’s home in Springfield, Illinois, had the 600-pound bell hauled to his Madison home.
Deller, who worked pro-bono, used a stiff nylon brush and a vacuum cleaner to remove debris followed by a handheld steam cleaner and a toothbrush to gently scrub the surface before it was dried with a heat gun. He then covered the bell, made by the Cincinnati Bell Foundry sometime between 1890 and 1930, with a combination of beeswax, candelilla wax and carnauba wax dyed black to protect the bell from the elements and give it a uniform look.
The bell, which still works and is being stored in Miller’s garage, will be incorporated into the landscaping on the grounds of the church this spring.
And then there are the trees. Two 45-year-old honey locusts and a rotting ash that may have sprouted before the Civil War on the church property have been incorporated into the church’s construction, most of it as part of a decorative wood wall at the front of the sanctuary. The project was the brainchild of Jim Birkemeier, founder of Spring Green Timber Growers, a family-run company that specializes in maximizing the value of trees regardless of size or condition.
Birkemeier has his own kilns and sawmill and much of his work is in flooring. But the wall, which would normally cost about $20,000, has special meaning.
“Using the trees from the yard show the values of using good local wood. It is beautiful and full of character, just like the people in our community,” said Birkemeier, who also was among the volunteer firefighters on the scene the morning of the blaze.
“All of that value of the one ash tree has been saved and kept in our local community, instead of just throwing the wood in the dump, or sending it through a huge wood chipper.... Helping this congregation build this wall from their own tree is the highlight of my 40 years of forestry in Wisconsin.”
A stained glass window that had been above the main entrance to the old church was one of the few things not destroyed in the fire and was restored by Light Haus Art Glass in Madison. It will be installed soon near a side vestibule but it will take another $40,000 to $50,000 to add stained glass to the six main windows of the sanctuary, Miller said.
Paul Kardatzke, the lead architect on the project for Jewell Associates Engineers, was trained at nearby Taliesin, while Midwest Builders of Fennimore has been the general contractor.
“To me the beauty of it all is that it actually looks like an old church,” said Dan Bender, the construction foreman for Midwest Builders who has built five other churches, most of them with a more modern look. “This one has an old-time flare to it.”
For Miller and his congregation, the fire and reconstruction has brought multiple proverbial silver linings. They include the potential for new members, the strengthening of a community, restoring what could have been a vacant lot and remaining a part of the village’s downtown. The spiritual aspects on which the church was founded are also being reinforced.
“We’ll definitely be talking about the Gift this year and all the gifts we receive,” Miller said. “But the most important gift is the gift of faith. The gift to even be able to believe.”