First UMC of Opelika Finds New Life for the Holidays

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Patrick Hitchman-Craig, associate pastor at First UMC of Opelika, gives a sermon in the newly renovated sanctuary. PHOTO CONTRIBUTED TO THE OBSERVER

BY KENDYL HOLLINGSWORTH

KENDYLH@OPELIKAOBSERVER.COM

OPELIKA —

The congregation at First United Methodist Church of Opelika had a little extra to be thankful for during this Thanksgiving season.

After about four years of planning, designing, COVID delays and construction work, renovations were completed for the 143-year-old building that stands at the corner of Avenue A and South 7th Street in downtown Opelika.

“It’s finally nice to see the finished product,” said Jon Tate, chair of the church’s Building Committee. “… It was a dramatic improvement. It’s going to really allow us to do some things.”

The nearly $4.5 million project covered a variety of the church’s needs — replacement of the HVAC system, a complete remodel of the basement, necessary attic work and the much-anticipated remodel of the sanctuary, complete with improved lighting and new audio-visual and livestreaming capabilities.

For the Rev. Patrick Hitchman-Craig, associate pastor at First UMC, the finished product was worth the wait.

“We’ve been under construction for 10 months, so we were out of the sanctuary for 10 months,” he said. “We worshipped in the fellowship hall during that time, and so it was a long time to be out of a space that people have grown accustomed to being in, but now that we’re back in I think everybody goes, ‘Wow, that was worth it.’”

According to Hitchman-Craig, the church’s last major building project took place around 2005 with the addition of the fellowship hall and education wing. There had been plans to renovate the sanctuary back then, but after the recession hit around 2008, the project was put on hold.

Fast forward about a decade, and Tate said it was time to take care of some needed repairs. In addition, the HVAC system was in dire need of replacement.

“The old one was at a point where it was kind of on life support, and if we had another issue with it, we would’ve been just completely without,” he said. “So, as we got into that, that kind of drove additional projects that were not really anticipated.”

One of those was a complete remodel of the basement — in part because of how the team had to run the ductwork, which also led them to the attic for some behind-the-scenes repairs and upgrades that likely won’t be noticed by the average churchgoer, according to Tate.

But in 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic delayed the church’s efforts by about 12 to 18 months.

“Obviously, none of us knew what was going on when COVID hit,” Tate said. “… We did make a few minor tweaks when we got back together before going under construction, but we were almost set on ‘go’ right at the onset of COVID. Had we known, that would have been a perfect time — because we were already out of the building — to go ahead and begin construction.”

Despite the setbacks, Hitchman-Craig said the pandemic also shed light on a silver lining. With church services going online, the congregation noticed a need for better lighting and audio-visual upgrades to get the most out of their livestreamed services.

“Just sitting in the sanctuary, it always felt like a well-lit building on a sunny day, but if you ever tried to video or do anything in there, you quickly realized how dark it was,” Tate explained. “… So that’s one of the things we really enhanced when we did get back together. … People that did watch it online said just how much better it was, so streaming capability is much improved. Our ability to reach people that are traveling or sick, or even cover overflow, is really an improvement now.”

Overall, Tate said the renovations revealed that the building had many good structural pieces still intact, which was beneficial to them during construction. According to Hitchman-Craig, the demolition work in the basement uncovered an interesting piece of history: a thick, red brick wall that was part of the original structure built in 1879.

“You could go in, and there was still some of that original 1879 red brick that’s still there and still holding things together, which is amazing,” he said.

The finished basement includes extra classroom spaces, a bridal suite and additional bathrooms.

Other upgrades included better fireproofing and other life safety improvements, Tate said.

“Again, not the kind of thing that anybody is going to see if they’re just walking around, but we know it’s there,” he added. “We feel more comfortable that it’s there.”

Two Alabama-based companies headed the project. Robins & Morton served as construction manager on the project, hiring subcontractors and managing the process throughout, Tate said. Seay, Seay & Litchfield served as the architect.

“We can’t say enough about the project team and just what a great job they did,” Tate said. “You really didn’t know they were there. They kept everything clean, very respectful of being on the property and understanding that this was a place of worship and important to us.”

Tate and a few others arrived about 45 minutes early to the church’s first Sunday service back in the sanctuary, held Nov. 13, which Hitchman-Craig called a kind of “test run” to see how everything was functioning. Luckily, “everything went off without a hitch.”

“The organ, the piano, the choir, the lighting — everything was just really amazing,” Tate recalled.

Those involved in the project were invited to a reception following the service, and the church’s preschoolers made thank-you cards for the project manager. “He was really tickled to get those,” Tate said.

First UMC held its official celebratory service Nov. 20. Hitchman-Craig said some retired pastors attended, and the space was reconsecrated as a place of worship. He added that he hopes the renovated space will inspire churchgoers for years to come, and as Christmas approaches, he is looking forward to seeing the sanctuary decked out in greenery and other decorations.

“One of the things you hear people say is ‘The church is people. The church isn’t a building,’” he said. “And while that’s true, buildings still matter. Architecture communicates. The people of God have always worshipped God in physical bodies, in physical spaces … so at the end of the day, as a church, we want a space that inspires worship — that you don’t just walk in and go, ‘What a beautiful sanctuary,’ but it draws your attention elsewhere to go, ‘There’s something else here. There’s a beautiful God here that does beautiful things, and this beautiful space is a reflection of that.’”

First UMC meets for worship services at 9 and 10:30 a.m. every Sunday, and all are welcome to attend.

“It’s really not about coming to see the sanctuary,” Hitchman-Craig added. “It’s about coming to see a God who is good and wants to do great things in people’s lives, and encounter the love of Christ and the beauty of God in a new, renovated, beautiful space.”

View photos of the renovation process below. All photos were contributed to The Observer.

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