The small but thriving family of St. Elmo United Methodist Church wasn't looking for a challenge, but a devastating electrical fire on Aug. 23, 2009, provided just that.
And like a family, ac-cording to the Rev. Mark Dowell, the congregation has come together to meet the challenge.
"It changed us a lot," he said, "but it brought us closer together."
On Sunday, after nearly three years of meeting elsewhere, the congregation will enter its virtually new building with a new name and an invigorated purpose.
What will now be called St. Elmo Community Church, though still under the United Methodist denomination, will host its first service at 11 a.m. A formal dedication will be held Sunday, June 24, at 3 p.m.
The new name, according to Dowell, describes what the congregation wants to be.
Although the church hosted community events before, members now envision it as a neighborhood mecca for outreach activities for senior citizens, youth and children such as Upward Basketball, wellness classes, job skills and art meditation.
"It opens endless possibilities," Dowell said.
The fire, which began in a storage room above the sanctuary, was caused by old, malfunctioning wiring, investigators with the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the Chattanooga Fire Department determined.
Since the property is part of the St. Elmo Historic District, with guidelines set by the Chattanooga Historic Zoning Commission, church leaders had to get the approval of city officials to move forward on rebuilding.
The Historic Zoning Commission recommended the front wall and two side walls of the original 1921 sanctuary be saved. The rest of the building and its 1950s-era education building were razed.
With that mandate and an insurance payout of more than $3.6 million, church officials asked congregation members what they'd like to see and moved forward.
"We gave the architects a wish list," said church organist and trustees chairman Scott Medley, who also served as building chairman, "and they came back with a conceptual drawing."
The sanctuary, which was converted from three sections of curved pews with two aisles to two sections of straight pews with a center aisle, seats up to 300 people.
The new red oak pews, which have an English walnut stain, were selected to match those they replace. The chancel rail and baptismal font also were custom-made to be similar to those lost in the fire.
The arched choir loft in the new formation was moved back, allowing more room for musicians. Multimedia screens were added to both sides of the loft.
The new, custom-built Allen organ is all digital now, Medley said, but one day can be connected to the exposed, gleaming pipes -- bought off eBay -- and installed above the choir loft. A 9-foot-tall oak cross Medley is building in his basement will hang in front of the choir loft and appear to be suspended in the air.
One level has 12 classrooms, offices and a planned outdoor playground for young children, and a bottom level offers an industrial-grade kitchen and combination fellowship hall and gymnasium.
In the construction, Dowell said, the building -- which went from 25,000 square feet to a "more usable" 21,000 square feet -- was made more easily accessible and as energy efficient and green as possible.
Following the fire, the congregation met for six months at St. Elmo Seventh-day Adventist Church, then until last week in a combined weekly service at Lookout Mountain United Methodist Church.
"We've clawed, scraped and fought," Dowell said, "but we've pulled together."
Betty Ann Case, 80, who was baptized and raised her children in the congregation, said she hopes the new building will attract more people to the church.
"The sanctuary is so beautiful," she said. "What I like is that it still has quite a bit of the old [look] and the new. We've really just hung together so well."
Clint Cooper is the faith editor and a staff writer for the Times Free Press Life section. He also has been an assistant sports editor and Metro staff writer for the newspaper. Prior to the merger between the Chattanooga Free Press and Chattanooga Times in 1999, he was sports news editor for the Chattanooga Free Press, where he was in charge of the day-to-day content of the section and the section’s design. Before becoming sports ...