It was miraculous nobody had accepted the Wetumpka First Presbyterian Church’s longstanding invitation to enter its unlocked sanctuary and pray on the afternoon of Jan. 19 when a tornado turned its 162-year-old walls and roof into kindling.
Just as remarkable was a first responder finding the church’s original sanctuary Bible from 1857, dry as ancient parchment and opened to the 18th Psalm, part of which says: “The earth shook and trembled; the foundations also of the hills moved and were shaken because He was wroth. … He brought me forth also into a large place; He delivered me because He delighted in me. … I was also upright before Him. … The Lord is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer; my God, my strength, in whom I will trust; my buckler and the horn of my salvation and my high tower.”
The high tower of the church’s steeple, the quintessential image of Wetumpka captured in innumerable photos and paintings, will soon rise again as a sentinel over the Coosa River.
The large place is a new church that will be a classic replica of the Gothic Revival-style building which opened even before the Civil War.
The church’s congregation gathered Sunday morning on the barren lot, cleared of everything except an old piano and rostrum from the old building, to break ground for the new one. Rev. Jonathan Yarboro said it will take about a year to finish.
“On Jan. 19 the entire community was reminded life is fragile,” he told his congregation. “We didn’t need reminding on Jan. 20 that we didn’t lose our church; that happened immediately when the first persons on the scene — not first responders — who were near this intersection checked and made sure no one needed assistance, especially in the sanctuary which lay in ruins. Our prayer is the new building will stand as long as the one it replaces.”
While the church itself will be new, its spirit is enlivened by a lineage of tradition. The 1857 Bible recovered from the splintered sanctuary is on display at every worship service in the fellowship hall, the crease between its torn pages still holding tiny shards of plaster eviscerated from the shredded walls. There’s a cross fashioned of wood salvaged from what was left of the old building. There’s a rock on the property marking where soldiers met before leaving to fight in the Civil War, according to church member John David Law, 76, whose great-great grandparents, Dr. and Mrs. William Carey Penick, were among the 19 founders of the church.
“It is renewal,” Law said. “It’s doing away with the old and coming in with the new. You always talk about the church. The church is the people. Structures can always be rebuilt.”
The new place of worship will remain open for anyone to pray in.
“We didn’t realize how much it meant to people outside the church to be able to come in and pray,” church member Nancy Borders said.
Yarboro pointed out the sermons aren’t bad either.
“We will have restored an icon of this community, a beacon to point people to God,” Yarboro said. “We get the benefit, of course, because when you come inside, you get to hear the best preaching in the world.”
The tornado was traumatic for the church’s members but they marvel at what was left behind and the fact nobody was injured. Yarboro’s robes and his bass fiddle “Bertha” survived in what was left of his office. A party had been scheduled the afternoon of the tornado but was cancelled because family members couldn’t travel from out of town that weekend.
The iconic steeple, one of the first parts of the new church to rise from the ground, will be made of steel and the bell salvaged from the ruins will be put atop it.
“It wasn’t just a loss for us, it was a loss for the community,” church member Lee Borders said. “People were used to seeing it when they came over the bridge and they want to see it again.”
Three months after the tornado, a man revisited what was left of the structure that may have saved his life.
“At first we thought someone was in the sanctuary when it hit,” Borders said. “There was a truck in the parking lot and we didn’t know who it belonged to.”
It turned out to be someone seeking refuge from the approaching tornado and he returned to the site in April when the church was having a yard sale to benefit Relay for Life.
“A man came up and asked if he could go into one of the wings that was still standing,” church member Judy Morrow said. “We told him to be careful. He was the one we thought might have been in the church when it hit. It was his truck out in the parking lot. He saw it coming and turned in here and went down the stairwell to try to get into the basement. He couldn’t get in so he sat in the bottom of the stairwell and held onto the railing. It moved his truck but not him.”
Nancy Borders, who like Law was also baptized in the church as an infant, still finds it impossible to describe what she saw after she and her husband raced from Santuck and arrived before authorities could erect roadblocks.
“I had no words,” she said. “It was hard to wrap my head around it.”
Yarboro said the old church building had separate wings for education and administration and the new building will encompass them. The original church was finished in 1857 for $2,300. The east wing was added in 1947 and the west wing in 1957. Yarboro said total damages have been estimated at $3.9 million.
The contractor for the project is Russell Construction of Montgomery, which built the fellowship hall and handled repairs.