RACINE - Every Sunday last summer, members of Holy Communion Lutheran Church made their way to the church's basement for morning worship services. Upstairs, the sanctuary of the historic church at 2000 W. Sixth St. was filled from floor to ceiling with scaffolding and lined with drop cloths, as the final phase of a year-long, building renovation project took place.
On Sept. 13, the congregation moved back into the sanctuary to find a brighter, cleaner and greener version of the worship space they knew and loved. New carpeting, fresh paint and varnish; better, more energy-efficient lighting; and refreshed gold accents on the columns and rosettes are just a few of the things that were done as part of the renovation.
Improvements were also made in the choir loft, some restrooms and the attic, where a catwalk was in need of repair. And along the way, members of Holy Communion learned interesting facts about their church - including their discovery that the high-arched, sanctuary ceiling is made out of layers of horsehair, jute and canvas, rather than the plaster they suspected.
"When you start a project like this, you find a lot of little things that you weren't expecting," said Skip Carlson, the church's custodian.
The work in the sanctuary was precipitated by a leaky roof, which first led to outside work on the church, which was built in 1928. Parts of the building's slate roof were repaired and new copper flashing was installed. It had been about 25 years since any significant work had been done on the church, according to Barb Salvo, a member of the seven-person building committee that oversaw the renovation. And even the two 5-foot stone crosses that have anchored each end of the church roof since its first days needed repair.
Finding craftsmen to do the intricate stone work required on the crosses was not an easy task. The committee ended up having to send one of the crosses to Canada, where craftsmen created a perfect replica of it. Yet all of that work and more was worth the time, effort, and expense that went into the project, as the results are "just beautiful," Salvo said.
What is most important, however, about giving the Gothic-style building a facelift, is being able to preserve a place of worship for generations of congregants to come, said Salvo, who has been a member of Holy Communion since 1970.
"Our motto throughout this project has been that we are embracing our past and our faith in our future," she said.
The renovation is actually more about the ministry of the church than it is about the building, said the Rev. Jeff Barrow, senior pastor at Holy Communion.
"We're not fixing this up to be a museum," Barrow said. "We feel like we are called to do this for the next generations."
While members of the congregation do appreciate the "church on the hill," as Holy Communion is known around Racine, the building itself is not the congregation's passion, said Barrow, who has been with the church for 18 years.
"The food pantry we operate, our music and our ministry - those are our real passions," he said.
Renovating the building also makes a statement to the neighborhood surrounding Holy Communion that the congregation views that neighborhood as important to the city, Barrow said.
"We really believe in what we are doing here," he said. "And we like being close to the heart of the city."
Money for Holy Communion's rennovation was raised through a three-year fund appeal that has pledged $650,000 to the project. The cost of the entire project is expected to come to "right around that same amount," Salvo said.
Being able to complete the renovation without going into debt is quite a feat in this economy, but Salvo and others in the approximately 1,500-member congregation are not surprised by the fact that Holy Communion raised enough pledges to cover the cost.
"We have a history here of not wanting to go into debt that dates back to the time of the Depression when the church was built," said Salvo.
Holy Communion Church, which was originally located at 10th Street and Washington Avenue, bought and added onto the building on Sixth Street just before the 1929 stock market crash, and still managed to pay off the mortgage before the start of World War II, she and Barrow said.
"The congregation spent the whole Depression just wondering if they could hold onto the building," Barrow said.
Wherever possible, members of Holy Communion volunteered their time to help with the recent renovation. Throughout the year, hundreds of congregants helped in various capacities, with tasks ranging from removing hymnals from the sanctuary to replacing the many lightbulbs there.
The church hired as many local contractors as possible to do the skilled work, including Racine's ARC Architectural Group and the Studios of Potente in Kenosha, which specializes in historic church restoration.
In addition to Salvo, Barrow and Carlson, those who served on the building committee were Jim Theusch, Harold Schwartz, Linda Green and John Schwengel.
In addition to its regular Sunday morning worship services, the congregation is inviting the public to come to an open house on Nov. 22 to see its new sanctuary and get to know the congregation.