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Historic Revival

St. John’s United Church of Christ nearing fundraising goal

Project to restore the 1844 structure
has been journey of faith

MADISON, Ind. (April 2013) – For congregations around the world, Easter is a time to reflect on rebirth. Yet, members of one Madison, Ind., church have a physical reminder of the power of renewal as the very building where they gather to celebrate has itself undergone a vibrant restoration during the past year.
Over the past 14 months, the interior of St. John’s United Church of Christ has seen its once solid colored walls returned to their artistic beauty of the 1870s. The side walls of the sanctuary now include arches that highlight the stained glass windows, while a painted altar piece draws focus to the cross.

St. John's Church

Photo by Patti Watson

St. John’s United Church of
Christ is undergoing a $15,000
renovation project to its interior.
The project includes the arches,
side walls and the altar.

Restoration artist David Cart believes that the way a church looks can assist in spiritual reflection. “You can grow closer to God in a garage, but the purpose of the building is to help you do that,” he says.
Cart believes that when a person walks into a sacred space that it is important to pause and reflect, to quiet the mind when stepping through the door. “That happens now,” he says stopping to look around the sanctuary of St. Johns.
The members of St. John’s have raised about $10,000 for interior restorations and now need only about $5,000 to finishing paying for this current project. Funds are generated through soup and salad sales that take place the fourth Friday of most months, and the church is currently scheduling a concert with the Barefoot Friends to raise money as well.
St. John’s Council President Mike Gourley notes that the congregation of about 40 people could not have done the restorations alone and is thankful for the assistance of the community in supporting their lunch sales and providing private donations. He stresses that the restoration work is being paid for by funds dedicated specifically to that task rather than coming out of the church’s normal budget. He is proud to report that the project has “not taken a penny away from our other missions.”
While Cart, the Director of Preservation and Mainten-ance for Historic Madison Inc., did most all of the painting himself, he is quick to point out that “absolutely everybody has played a role,” whether through fund raising, cleaning or simply moving pews.
The decision to return the interior to its 1870s glory was in keeping with an earlier decision to restore the exterior of the church to its original state. When the outside St. John’s came to be due for painting a few years ago, work showed that the building had not always been the white church members had known all their lives. After careful consideration, members voted to return the exterior to the warm golden yellow the church would have been when constructed in 1844. Last year, the congregation was  honored with the Dottie Reindollar Preservation Award for its ongoing restoration efforts. The award is presented annually by Historic Madison Inc. for excellence in local preservation efforts.
The decorative interior artwork was first uncovered while repairing some water damage that occurred during the 2008 Hurricane Ike. While the congregation was familiar with the fact that the walls had originally been decorated from black and white photos in the church’s archive, seeing the work in color lit an excitement in the group. Although the photos were “all dingy and dark,” according to Gourley, they did provide an essential reference point for the restoration in showing exactly how the decorative artwork was placed along the side walls and behind the altar. Careful paint scrapings and the fact that some of the old artwork was left behind the organ, protected from sunlight and renovations, allowed the colors to be matched to paint available today.

David Cart

Photo provided

David Cart began working on the interior renovation of St, John’s Church of Christ 14 months ago. “Everything points upward; everything is designed to draw your gaze heavenward,” he says of the artwork of the arches and altar.

Cart explains the artwork of the arches and the altar piece, saying, “Everything points upward; everything is designed to draw your gaze heavenward.”
He points out the subtle effect that the decorations have on the viewer, such as the fact that the shadows are painted so that the cross is perceived as the source of light in the sanctuary. Cart believes that, “It is important to remember that 19th century churches were built as a house of God.” He jokes that keeping up with modern trends left some of the old churches “looking more like Aunt Edna’s den.” Cart explains the rational that went in to painting the walls a solid color beginning in the 1930s saying, “It gets old and it gets dirty.”
With no one around with the skill set to maintain the paintings as they were created, the artwork was lost to the preference for solid colors and clean lines of the 20th century.
While Cart has worked on restorations at four churches, St. John’s was his first extensive time painting with the trompe l’oeil effect, which tricks the eye into perceiving a three-dimensional effect in work done on a flat surface. While standing on the scaffolding, painting the red quatrefoils, he began to grow concerned. From his vantage point, everything looked wrong from the shading to the lines. His wife, serving as a spotter, enthusiastically assured him that it looked great. But it wasn’t until he was back on the ground, looking up at the arch that he was able to experience the optical illusion of depth that those “wrong” lines were meant to create.
“It’s meant to be seen from down here, not up there,” he said.
While Gourley says that a larger church might have been able to raise the money for restorations more quickly, he points out that “you appreciate it more when you work for it.” He characterizes St. John’s as “A very close knit group of people always working together in harmony to do what it takes to keep the doors open. Our small congregation is doing some big things.”

• Contributions for the St. John’s United Church of Christ restoration project may be mailed to P.O. Box 401, Madison, IN 47250.

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