The results of Montevallo Presbyterian Church’s efforts to rebuild the damaged sanctuary promise to be worth the wait.
Thanksgiving and Christmas look to be especially joyful for Montevallo Presbyterians this year.
Their 120-year-old church should be ready for re-occupancy once again before those holidays.
Since an elderly oak tree fell on the sanctuary April 3, 2017, the congregation has been living the adage: A church is not a building; a church is its people.
The building at the corner of Shelby and Alabama streets was a landmark in Montevallo, and its tall stained glass window of Jesus as the Good Shepherd gave it a powerful iconic presence in the community.
A series of fortuitous circumstances has led to the construction of a new sanctuary building on the same footprint as its predecessor, a structure that in every aspect looks just like the former building. But, in many ways, it can be regarded as “new and improved.”
The falling oak, propelled by high winds, crashed through the sanctuary roof but left the Sunday School wing undamaged. However, the building couldn’t be occupied for safety reasons during the reconstruction.
So, the approximately 60 members of the congregation held services and Sunday School classes in the Forbes House, which houses the church’s campus ministry.
One gift that helped this process was a Presbyterian Disaster Assistance Grant of $5,000 to be used to keep the church going while the building was dealt with. “We needed to replace some hymnals and Sunday School materials,” explains Jane Clayton, the moderator of the church’s Presbytery.
Getting started on the rebuilding project was slow going, said her husband, Don Clayton, chairman of the church’s Building Commission.
First, they had to find out whether the building could be restored—After consulting structural engineers and restoration experts, the conclusion was that it was too damaged and too unsafe for workers to attempt to preserve the old sanctuary.
Once the commission had adjusted to that bad news, they had to arrange for the damaged sanctuary to be demolished, a heart-rending process.
“I watched them clear the tree,” Don Clayton says, “and they used a 36-inch chain saw. It still took 20 to 30 minutes just to cut through the trunk once.”
Next, the commission wrestled with the insurance company and all the regulations surrounding replacing the sanctuary.
When they were finally ready to look at contractors, there may have been a touch of divine intervention.
The Claytons were in Birmingham about a month after the tree fell when Jane received a text from church member Dorothy Grimes informing her that a similar calamity had just befallen the First Presbyterian Church on Fourth Avenue North.
The Claytons, who knew the pastor, the Rev. Shannon Webster, decided to visit the church and empathize. That is how the Claytons encountered Hancock Construction.
That company was already on the scene in Birmingham where its workers had been repairing the slate roof. Hancock turned out to have experience dealing with churches and historic properties, a perfect fit for the Montevallo job.
As construction progressed on the new building, passersby were gratified to recognize the familiar shape and its lofty windows. Yet, those windows appeared to be just ordinary glass, not stained glass.
That is not their permanent condition, Don says. While Hancock works to finish the main structure of the sanctuary, he says, Keith Jones of Birmingham Art Glass is creating vivid replicas of the old stained glass windows. Those will go inside the clear protective glass now in place.
And there was a bonus in all this: “We found some windows we didn’t know we had,” Don says. “They had been bricked over a long time ago at the back of the sanctuary.”
Those windows will be part of the new sanctuary. There also will be a rose oval window behind the pulpit and four stained glass windows on the north side.
“We will have the same traditional look,” Jane says, “but with 21st-Century touches—like insulation.”
Some relics of the old church rescued from the demolition may be repurposed.
“We have quite a few artists in our congregation,” she says.