BURLINGTON, Iowa — When a piece of the sanctuary ceiling at First Congregational Church fell to the floor a few months ago, it was like a sign from God: An indication the church’s motivated parishioners were well ahead of the game.

Fundraising for much-needed repairs and renovations to the church started last year, and the work itself has been going on through the summer.

“It emphasized the exact need that we need to restore the church to the way it was initially created,” said longtime parishioner and fundraising chairwoman Barbara McRoberts. “Thankfully, it did not happen on a Sunday service where there are people back in that area. So we were fortunate there.”

Those repairs and renovations have been underway since June, and the sanctuary ceiling already has been repaired.

But it’s just the tip of the iceberg. Moisture has penetrated mortar joints and coping caps across the building over the years, and contractors have been hard at work sealing the gaps.

“I think it’s just really exciting,” McRoberts said. “This is a very historic structure in terms of architecture.”

It’s why the church board started the Restore and Preserve capital campaign last year. McRoberts and her committee want to raise $500,000 for those repairs, and 45 percent of that — about $226,000 — already has been raised. It was enough to start an exterior overhaul in June, and work on the interior will continue into October before resuming next year. Fundraising efforts will continue.

Since the church is listed on both the state and National Register of Historical Places, special care has to be taken to restore the building while maintaining its original look. The four front doors to the church are being replaced, and the wood trim on the arches above them will be displayed prominently. The doors themselves cost between $10,000 and $15,000 apiece.

“We have seen an increase in cost from where we started over a year ago, and the doors would be an example,” said David McMurray, a church member who’s overseeing the project.

The church’s stone walls have eroded considerably over the past century, which is why private contractors have been sealing and repointing the mortar joints. Other exterior work includes repairing the gutters and downspouts, repairing and replacing some of the roof’s shingles and maintaining the wood trim above the front doors. Work also has been done to re-enforce the church bell tower.

“There’s still anticipated work on the west facade due to the deterioration to the mortar of the coping stones,” McMurray said.

That’s just the exterior work, though.

McRoberts is most excited about expanding the accessibility for the handicapped at the front doors with a longer wheelchair ramp, as well as a new interior wheelchair ramp inside the building. Work on the interior ramp has already begun, and will eliminate the need for older residents to use the interior stairs. An elevator already exists to take them to the second-floor sanctuary.

“The (present) ramp is very steep, and we don’t have the accessibility we would like to our restrooms,” McRoberts said.

Besides expanding the space in and around the restrooms, new boiler controls will be installed, as well as a permanent dehumidifier.

McRoberts said it wouldn’t be possible without generous donations from the community.

“I’m always amazed by the contributions that come from non-members who spent time in our church,” said McRoberts, who has been attending First Congregational since the 1950s.

According to church historian Ellen Fuller, First Congregational Church of Burlington was gathered Nov. 25, 1838. It was reorganized Dec. 28, 1843, at which time the Congregational name and form of government was adopted.

“The first church building, constructed at a cost of $6,000, was dedicated on Dec. 29, 1846, the year Iowa became a state,” she said. “In that year, the Rev. William Salter, a member of the Iowa Band from Andover Theological Seminary in Massachusetts, began his 64-year ministry at the church. There was an original church on this site that looked like a little country church, and then congregation outgrew it.”

The Iowa Band was a group of 12 seminarians, and each was charged to found a church and together they found a college. That college eventually became Grinnell College, which consistently is ranked among the top 15 liberal arts institutions in the country.

On July 4, 1867, the old church was torn down and the cornerstone was laid for the present church building, designed by local architect Charles A. Dunham. The new building was dedicated Christmas Day, 1870.

The church caught fire Sept. 19, 1899, and within two hours, all that remained of the building were the bare walls and tower. It was rebuilt and rededicated Nov. 11, 1900.

“The structure is built of dressed dolomite limestone in Gothic Revival style,” Fuller said. “Its distinguished feature is a square crenelated tower.”

In the early 1960s, the church was extensively remodeled, creating the intermediate level now housing the kitchen, Fellowship Hall, offices, chapel, parlor and restrooms.

“The building has been very important to the community,” the Rev. Jim Francisco said in a previous interview. “Just the other day we had a couple that came in that aren’t members of the church, but they were married here in 1954. They just wanted to look around.”

The church celebrated its 175th anniversary in 2013.

First Congregational Church isn’t the only local house of worship receiving a face lift. St. Mary’s Catholic Church is also under renovation.

Burlington began in mid-August, and when it’s done, the church will have a larger gathering space at the entrance. The entrance itself is being moved to the center of the building, and a new drop-off lane will allow parishioners to drop off elderly residents at the entrance. The current configuration causes traffic jams that spill onto Mount Pleasant Street.

The biggest addition will be running water and bathrooms for men and women, which has been a request at the church for a while now.

“The outside patio level will be all new, along with the handicap accessible ramp,” said parish lay director Tom Chicken.

Chicken said plans for the additions have been in the works for the past two-and-a-half years, and he’s hoping to have all the work done by Christmas. The history of the church can be traced all the way back to 1886, and it was founded with money advanced by the C.B. & Q. Land Company. A one room addition was built to the brick church and school to provide a home for nuns.

On the Feast of the Epiphany in 1913, the church, school and sister’s convent were destroyed by fire. A new church was built and dedicated on Memorial Day, May 30, 1917.

Construction of the Grotto began in 1929 by parishioners and families from the area, and a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary is located inside the Grotto. The Grotto is still maintained by volunteers.

Information from: The Hawk Eye, http://www.thehawkeye.com

An AP Member Exchange shared by the Hawk Eye