After fire, renovated Andale church is ‘bringing heaven and earth together’

A friend called retired Catholic priest Leon Kerschen early one morning last summer and announced, “The church in Andale is on fire.”

“The church in Andale is always on fire,” Kerschen responded.

Kerschen, who was born and raised in Andale, meant it in a spiritual sense. But the church was actually burning.

A lightning bolt from an intense thunderstorm struck the roof of St. Joseph Catholic Church early on the morning of June 24, igniting a fire that caused millions of dollars in damage. When parishioners heard the historic church had caught fire, some converged on the scene to see how bad it was.

“We all cried when we saw it burning,” Marge Gruenbacher said of the tall brick church, which was built in 1912 — the same year the Titanic sank and Boston’s Fenway Park opened.

But those who wept are now rejoicing. As Christians around the world celebrate Easter, which commemorates the resurrection of Jesus, the holiday will resonate even more deeply this year in Andale.

A massive renovation of St. Joseph following the fire has been completed just in time for Easter.

“It’s nicer now than it ever was,” said native son Paul Gruenbacher, Marge’s husband.

Planning the renovation

The renovation took 10 months and cost more than $4 million, blending new touches and additions with a design honoring the church’s roots. The project was paid for by a combination of insurance and private donations.

“We’d actually had a plan to do a renovation,” the Rev. Daryl Befort said. “It was supposed to start in January instead of July. God moved it up a little bit for us.”

Some similarities exist between the Andale fire and the one that damaged the Notre Dome Cathedral in Paris.

In both cases, the fire damage was primarily to the roof and attic. In Andale, the domed ceiling shunted most of the firefighting water to the sides and away from the heart of the church, Befort said. The pews and the altar were untouched by blaze.

“I was somewhat pleasantly surprised that the damage wasn’t worse,” Befort said. “But with any fire, you’re going to have a lot of water.”

More than three feet of water filled the basement. Despite assurances from their priest, many feared the worst.

“It would have been a real shame to demolish it, which they may have done with just about any other building that was on fire,” said Kerschen, who was baptized, received his First Communion, was ordained a priest with his twin brother Leo and presided over his first Mass at the church.

But demolition was never a consideration, Befort said. Plans to replace the roof and renovate the interior began immediately. A company that specializes in church restoration was hired and local parishioners were tabbed to form a design committee.

Being a member of that committee was both an honor and a burden, members said.

Walls whisper, windows sing

Repainting the church is one thing, Debbie Winter said, but to shape what people see and experience for decades is another.

“The gravity of something so permanent weighs heavy on you,” she said.

After the water and debris was cleaned up, everything inside the church was removed. Masses were held at the parish center next door.

Left with essentially a blank canvas, the design committee had no frame of reference available. Befort urged them to stay true to the church’s origins, so the committee used old photographs of the church for inspiration.

One key element, committee members said, was highlighting the stained glass windows, which had been refurbished before the fire and survived with only a bit of smoke damage. The windows date back to when the church first opened and feature Latin and German phrases along with dedications to local families.

“The walls should whisper,” Winter said, “because the windows sing.”

Parishioners were relieved that the windows were spared in the fire.

“The old-timers sacrificed a lot for this church,” Marge Gruenbacher said. “It was a big sacrifice to pay for those windows in those days. But, look – they’re still intact.”

To keep the interior bright, the ceiling was painted ivory with gold trim. The church was completely rewired and repainted. The plaster inside the church features a base coat, a fiberglass mesh and a top coat, making it “stronger than it was on the day it was built,” Befort said.

“Every drop of paint in the church is new,” he said.

While the shell of the organ remains, the entire inner workings had to be replaced because of damage caused by water and humidity.

Hidden gems

As they went through the process of cleaning up and figuring out how to rebuild the interior, one surprise after another emerged.

“There are a lot of gems that have come out of the fire,” committee member Kelly Kuhn said.

One was discovering a set of doors in the basement that dated back to when the church first opened. They now serve as the entry between an expanded greeting space and the nave, where the congregation sits.

Another was a stained glass window that many in the parish knew nothing about because it had been closed off by a renovation years ago. The newly discovered window is now visible as part of changes that include a eucharistic adoration chapel and an ADA-compliant restroom – both firsts for the church.

Other uncovered “gems” are more intangible, parishioners say. Forced to celebrate Mass in the small confines of the parish hall, the congregation has grown closer.

There’s also a greater appreciation for the church they call home.

“We took something for granted that was almost taken away,” Kuhn said.

Joseph worked as a humble carpenter, and Befort followed in his footsteps during the renovation project. He built the chair the presiding priest sits on during Mass, the bench that altar servers sit on, the lector’s chair and other pieces.

Kerschen wrote Befort a letter not long after the fire.

“I told him I think God put the right man here at the right time to do this renovation,” Kerschen said. “He’s been the leader of this whole process and has done it so well, with the help of the community behind him.”

A beacon

Bishop Carl Kemme rededicated the church in a special Mass on March 19, the feast of St. Joseph, and since then the crowds have been larger than usual for weekend Masses. People are converging on Andale to get a look for themselves.

One of the goals of the renovation was to “make St. Joseph more visible and more understood,” Winter said.

Three medallions highlighting the saint were placed in the central aisle leading to the altar. There are two statues of St. Joseph now – one inside the church and one outdoors.

“He was a very common man who was given a very uncommon job” – that of helping to raise the child Jesus, Winter said.

That makes him relatable to people from all walks of life, Kuhn said.

“He’s a beautiful saint who can help all of us,” she said.

The renovation means the church can continue to serve as a beacon on the north end of Main Street in Andale.

Kerschen said he takes special pride in the small town’s two downtown anchors. “On one end of Main Street, we have the spiritual feeder of the community, and on the other end we have the grain elevator, which is the material feeder of the community,” he said.

There was an almost tangible fear among longtime parishioners that the renovated church would not resemble the sacred space they had known and loved for so long.

“We kept that close to our hearts,” Kuhn said. “It’s Andale, and it’s got to feel like it.”

Yet the renovation has exceeded hopes. Even before the fire, Robby Spexarth said, “I always thought this was the most beautiful church in the area. Now it’s by far the best.”

All five of the Spexarth children have been baptized at St. Joseph and received church sacraments as they’ve grown. Kinley, 8, will receive her First Communion soon, and she’s “totally excited” to be able to do it inside the renovated church, Spexarth said.

Kathy Husband called the renovation “stunning.”

“When I walked into church, I just felt completely overcome with emotion,” she said over lunch at Brunin’s Café in downtown Andale. “I’ve talked to other people and they said the same thing.

“It’s more than just beautiful. It’s bringing heaven and earth together.”