1883: Church for Episcopals, Methodists and Presbyterians founded
1886: Land donated for building at St. Elmo Avenue and 42nd Street
1887: Building occupied, now is home to Seventh-day Adventist Church of St. Elmo
1921: Cornerstone laid for a Methodist church at the corner of St. Elmo Avenue and 47th
2009: Fire guts the church
Source: St. Elmo United Methodist Church.
The old pipe organ at St. Elmo United Methodist Church could send vibrations through the floor, rattling windows and souls alike.
Standing in the roofless, charred remnants of the 90-year-old church's sanctuary last week, the Rev. Mark Dowell remembers giving sermons while telling organist Scott Medley to crank it up.
"Oh man, I miss that old organ," Dowell said, standing in what used to be his pulpit. "It will be great to do that again."
A brick shell is all that remains of the church at the corner of St. Elmo Avenue and West 47th Street. What wasn't burned out during an August 2009 electrical fire was ravaged by water used in fighting the fire and exposure to rain and the elements.
"It's just so hard to be in here now," Dowell said as he walked through old Sunday school classrooms that have peeling paint and moldy walls. "There are a lot of memories here."
Despite the struggles that followed, the fire galvanized the congregation, whose members pledged to stay together, to rebuild and to bring the church back to life, Dowell said.
This week will mark a milestone on that journey as crews prepare to demolish the interior of the old building and embark on a $3 million renovation paid for entirely with insurance money. Work could be complete as early as Christmas, Dowell said.
"I think some people started to doubt if it was ever going to happen," said Medley, who has attended the church for 15 years. "But now we are seeing holes being dug and dirt being moved, so people are getting excited."
The congregation is observing Easter Sunday at Lookout Mountain United Methodist Church, where they have been since the fire. The congregations combined a few months afterward.
But as grateful as the St. Elmo folks were to be welcomed on Lookout Mountain, they look forward to the day when they can go back home.
Construction crews this week plan to knock down everything except the front and side brick walls, then essentially build a new church inside. The congregation's stained-glass windows were saved and are being restored in Nashville.
It took nearly a year for the church to get its renovation plans approved by the Chattanooga Historic Zoning Commission. The church is in the St. Elmo Historic District.
Since then, church leaders have pored over the plans, looking for possible savings. The old church had an insured value of about $3.6 million despite falling into disrepair over the years. Dowell estimated the church needed more than $1 million in repairs before it burned.
"We were so focused before the fire on the maintenance of that church," Medley said. "It was dragging our mission down. I felt like it was dragging our congregation down."
Before the fire, St. Elmo had about 150 members at Sunday service, and attendance had been growing for several years, Dowell said.
But the drive up Lookout Mountain to reach Sunday services, bad winter storms and a lack of nearby residents who occasionally attended services have caused about 50 members to fall out of regular attendance, Dowell said.
That decline is fairly typical, said the Rev. Fred Dearing, supervisor of the Holston Conference of the Methodist Church, which oversees both the St. Elmo and Lookout Mountain churches.
"They are seeing a typical pattern," Dearing said. "From time to time, congregations are displaced, but they are using a sister church, and while it's traumatic, they are surviving."
Struggle and optimism
The church's efforts to reach out into the community have been impaired, simply because it's not in the community anymore, Dowell said. It had been successful at attracting members from nearby Alton Park and the St. Elmo area, which has had roughly a decade of revitalization and gentrification.
The church food pantry and clothing ministry were wiped out in the fire, and the blaze destroyed the setting for nine decades of christenings, baptisms and weddings. That made it a place to which lifelong members were very attached.
On top of that, the church had a financial setback when it missed two Sundays of service during winter snowstorms. Members couldn't drive up Lookout Mountain, so the church collection plate didn't get passed those weeks.
"It really hurt us financially when we missed two Sundays," Dowell said. "But we're slowly recovering from that."
Medley already pictures himself in the new building. He has mapped out how he'll use its new gym and what Sunday services will feel like in their new permanent home.
Though the new organ will be digital, unlike the 1966 M.P. Moller pipe organ that was lost in the fire, Medley looks forward to sitting in front of its keys during the first Sunday service.
"I think I will probably play Widor's 'Toccata,' which they really love to hear me play," Medley said. "I have the architectural plans on my computer, and I look at them and imagine myself in the building. That first Sunday is going to be really special."