St. Johnís Evangelical Protestant Church
By: Jennifer Walker-Journey
St. John's Evangelical Protestant Church was established a mere four months before the small town of Cullman, Alabama, was founded in December of 1874. Both the city, strongly German in heritage, and the church grew together. When the church, more than 125 years later, decided to expand, it didn't take the notion lightly.
St. John's prides itself as Cullman's Community Church.
"We are a nondenominational church. We have strong roots, a strong sense of history, and a strong sense of sound doctrine," said Senior Pastor Bob Kurtz. "All these contribute to being who we are and what we are. We wanted that reflected in everything we did."
And, most importantly, they wanted that reflected in whatever shape its new facility would take. It was a small order, but one that that became enormously important when church leadership realized that it had outgrown its small but beautiful 1920s-era sanctuary.
"We went from little over 100 attendees to 500-600 in attendance over three services," Kurtz said.
What the swelling congregation most loved about the church was its beauty. Stained glass windows as old as the building itself had survived travel from Europe where it was made, and the massive organ with 1,700 pipes struck a chord deep within all members. To sacrifice such a beautiful sanctuary would be a sin to most member of St. John's. The challenge was communicating that importance to church growth consultants.
"They wanted us out of town," he said. "They told us that what we should do and not what we wanted to do. We didn't want to be flamboyant. We wanted to preserve this feeling. Coming into the sanctuary, there is a sense of reverence. You see the stained glass windows and the organs and the altar and you go 'awww.' There is a genuine sense of peace and reverence. And, that's what we wanted in a new building."
Church leadership also understood that adding a modern building on to a 100-plus-year-old building could mean that the addition would look awkward and out of place. But they wanted it to look like it had been here for awhile and wasn't an add-on.
And thus, the challenge was presented to another architectural group, Fuqua & Partners, based in Huntsville, Alabama.
The church had already given up hope on its previous consultant, which had pushed for relocating near the interstate. By the time the church reached Fuqua & Partners, they were exhausted. What the church needed was something that seemed almost impossible to deliver on a land-locked plot of land. The church wanted a new wing that would add classrooms, preschool space, and a massive multipurpose room that could hold special worship services, events, and even a gym. Three things, according to project architect Alex Felder, created a challenge on many levels.
For starters, the audio component would provide challenges. All three purposes would have different and opposing needs. But, secondly, the building would have to be wedged into the existing buildings just so in order to fit.
This was a challenge that the pastor and two other church leaders tackled one day.
"I took a napkin and I drew an L shape from the sanctuary," Kurtz said.
Then he described how the addition should work. Minister of Christian Education Steve Wood and Minister of Parish Life John Richter voiced their opinions, as well. Wood expressed his interests for the daycare, and Richter pushed the idea for a central atrium that could also serve as a labyrinth or prayer walk.
The church leaders brought this idea to Fuqua, and shortly after, they received a most generous gift Ė a design that met all their needs.
"They were remarkable," Kurtz recalled. "They took that napkin and they came back and what we saw was what we had struggled for more than two years to do. It was the right thing. It was what worked, what we wanted to do, what God wanted us to do."
The design involved a new addition that would tie into the existing church in two areas. The new wing would include classrooms, a two-story multipurpose space with a stage and strong AV units, and a commercial kitchen.
While the design appeared simple, it posed particular challenges. Because the floors were uneven between the two different sides of the old church the new building would connect, the floors needed to be gently sloped in order to meet up correctly.
But it was the exterior where Felder paid particular attention to design. For starters, he was conscious not to make the new building too large and thus compete with the original and revered sanctuary. The focal point would have to remain the old sanctuary. The old and new building would also have to blend.
Thus, Felder worked hard to meticulously match masonry work. He actually found the same quarry from where the original building's sandstones were cut more than 100 years ago. He also researched extensively simple items, such as the streetlights, so that they were indistinguishable from the original ones.
The same attention to detail was placed on interior design.
"They were very passionate about not straying too far from the feel of the original church," Felder said. "We were careful not to copy but be respectful of the original design. This included complementing the color scheme and detailing."
Once the design received the blessing of the pastors, it was quickly moved to the construction phase. And, from there, the project's progress soared.
"Once we made the decision, we were done in little over a year," Kurtz said.
Eight weeks after the church building was dedicated, on a tepid spring day, the worst tornadoes outbreaks the state of Alabama had ever seen. Some of the worst storms tore through Cullman, leveling neighborhoods and commercial districts. Amazingly, St. John's came through relatively unscathed.
On both sides of the block-wide church of St. John's, there was devastation. Buildings were missing and power was out for weeks on end.
"Christ Lutheran was totally destroyed, so we were loving Christians to our brothers and sisters. We invited them to come and have services there at a different time," Kurtz said. "Then we set up generators, and we opened our doors. Volunteers came from everywhere. For eight days, we served meals for between 700-800 people a day. Church members and locals, also without power, brought food from their thawing freezers. And, volunteers set up grills and cooked the meats they were given Ė steaks, trout, venison. The National Guard called us the St. John's Disaster Gourmet Dining Area. The food just kept coming up just like Jesus and his miracles with the loaves and the fish. We never ran out of food. It just kept appearing. And we kept giving it away to those who needed it."
It was as if the church was built in order to serve the needy in crisis.
More than six months after storms devastated the community of Cullman, life has yet to be restored to normal, at least in the physical sense. But, there is hope. More attention is being paid to how the buildings are rebuilt, and perhaps that will mean a strong community in the physical sense. In spirit, Cullman remains a strong force in Alabama.
"There's a tremendous positive attitude in this neighborhood," Kurtz said. "As we rebuild, it will do so better. We are a blessed community and we are recovering strongly. As Romans says, suffering produces perseverance."
As Cullman's community church, St. John's is truly persevering.
Fuqua & Partners Architects, based in Huntsville, Alabama, specializes in architecture, sustainable design, interior design, landscape architecture, medial visualization, and master planning, www.FuquaArchitects.com.