Girard Congregation begins construction on a new church –
“The sacred presence of God is evident.” – Rev. David Oyler
“God is faithful and God’s people are generous.” – Rev. Nicola Vitiello
Written by Marsha MacKinnon, Webmaster for the Presbytery of Lake Erie
The congregation of the First Presbyterian Church of Girard reached a major milestone on Sunday, November 24. Church members, with shovels in hand, including the young and not so young, held a groundbreaking ceremony to celebrate the start of construction on a new church building.
“It feels surreal to see construction starting,” said The Rev. Nicola Vitiello, pastor of the Girard church. “Its been a long road with many decisions, some hard, and looking at a lot of good ideas. Planning the construction of a building that will fit the needs of today and the needs of the future (which we can’t fully know obviously) is also a challenge. This is a tremendous opportunity and we want to do it right,” he said.
In July 2018, fire destroyed the 126 year old church building built in 1892. The cause of the fire was not determined. In March of 2019, crews began demolishing what remained of the church to clear the site for new construction. The original First Presbyterian Church of Girard was built at East Main (Route 20) and Church Streets in 1832. A storm destroyed that structure. Now, construction is underway on the third church building at the location.
Over the last 16 months, Girard church members have held worship services at the Lake City Presbyterian Church. The congregation has been planning and raising funds to rebuild the church building with the sale of bricks and a GoFundMe page. The new church building will cost about $3.3 million and may be completed by the end of 2020.
“The biggest difference in the design is that the new building will be one level,” Vitiello said. “The former building’s basement was not handicapped accessible and that was a problem. The one level design will mean the building will take up more of the property. There will be a sanctuary, social hall, 3 classrooms, kitchen, offices, community room, storage areas, and the part of the building that faces Route 20 will look similar to the former building. The food pantry will be housed in the new building. It will be funded by insurance, donations, fundraisers, and possibly a loan and what results from some cost saving measures currently being explored.”
At a time when the general trend is closing churches, new construction of a house of worship is extraordinary.“It is what people want, not just members, but the countless number of people from all over the country who have sent money to help rebuild on the same site. We have a fresh start, a chance to hit a reset button and do something wonderful for the community,” Vitiello said.
The Rev. David Oyler, General Presbyter for the Presbytery of Lake Erie, knows that in the mainline traditions the building of a new church building is relatively rare.
“In the last 12 years there have been two new church buildings in Lake Erie Presbytery,” Oyler said. “Both, however, emerged out of tragedy. The Harmonsburg Presbyterian Church building burned to the ground in January, 2008. They have since rebuilt a building for the 21st century. And, of course, the Girard building was destroyed by fire.”
The Girard congregation suffered a devastating loss. Yet, members rallied and in little over a year and a half members are focused on the future. There is more at work in the Girard community than just the rebuilding of a church structure.“It is a great joy to watch a faith community function at its very best,” Oyler said. “Just as individuals go through a grief cycle after a traumatic event, so do congregations. The Girard Session, and their Pastor Nicola Vitiello, have done a splendid job of paying attention to the grief cycle of the congregation. There is a Holy Spirit inspired movement evident. Some days are better than others, however, in the several times I have now been with them over the last 16 ½ months, the sacred presence of God is evident. In worship, in music, in education and in the ground breaking most recently,” Oyler reflected.
Rev. Vitiello, has served as pastor at the Girard church for the past nine years. The last 16 plus months being the most difficult, yet revealing.“God is faithful and God’s people are generous,” said Vitiello.”Ministry is hard by itself; adding all that’s come in the aftermath of the fire has made my work much harder as there are almost daily things that come to my attention that I need to deal with or delegate that relate to the project. I have learned that the church is not the building but the building is important and serves as a sacred space for people,” he said.
Girard church members have firmly put their future in God’s hands. Rev. Dr. Oyler has witnessed this faith-in-action and the process that has led to renewal. “God is wonderfully powerful in ways not easily defined. Out of a most difficult experience comes new growth, new stretching, new perspective on what it means to be ‘the church’. Author Rusty Reno wrote a book some years ago titled ‘In the Ruins of the Church’ in which he reminds us that we are always standing on the shoulders of those who have preceded us. A local congregation builds on what has come before with an eye on the future. That is wonderfully evident as Girard shares Good News in their community and testifies to the power of God, even in a time of tragedy. God is wonderfully present in a most powerful fashion.”