For sale: beautiful 111-year-old church with stained glass windows, quarried stone and pipe organ: $410,000.
The Pendleton First United Methodist Church, despite its elegant grandeur, has become a money pit for its small, close-knit congregation. Church members recently voted to sell their house of worship, but not without plenty of reflection and agonizing.
“This building is old and we have tried to keep it up, but it’s consuming our resources,” said Wanda Remington, president of the church’s administrative council. “We think our resources could be used better in other places than trying to rehab a 100-year-old building.”
“It was an extremely difficult decision to make,” Remington said. “But we realized this church is an albatross. It’s a beautiful albatross, don’t get me wrong, but its still an albatross.”
The church, located at 352 S.E. Second St., shows evidence of water damage, black mold, asbestos, cracking and peeling, crumbling mortar and deferred maintenance.
Jim Pierce, the veterinarian-turned-preacher who leads this tiny band of believers, arrived from Tennessee in July 2014. He leads about 35 people in worship each Sunday in a space that could hold 300.
Last Sunday, about 20 people stood in the glow of two huge stained glass windows and sang as Judy Jenner played the church’s floor-to-ceiling pipe organ with gusto. The organ wrapped the worshipers in rich reverberations.
Pierce took the microphone and addressed his flock about the joys and difficulties of going home for the holidays. He ended with a statement that had double meaning, considering the impending move from the stone church that has sheltered them for decades.
“Home is anywhere we meet God face to face,” he said. “You are God’s people. We are all God’s people. We’re getting ready to come home.”
Getting to the place of acceptance took months of soul searching. Over the past couple of years, Lisa Pierce, the pastor’s wife, took on the mission of finding a way to save the building.
“Lisa went from one end of the church to the other and brought in her son who is a contractor from Arkansas,” Pierce said. “She talked to plumbers, electricians, roofers and an architect.”
Lisa approached two television shows specializing in rehab (“Holmes on Homes” and “Rehab Addict”) and gave a tour to a Restore Oregon representative. None helped.
“This place has such a good spirit,” Lisa said. “I fell in love with the people here.”
Her son, Nick, did repairs around the church and Lisa said she started to have hope that the church could be saved. She remembers the day she lost that hope. Nick, his voice full of dismay, called his mother into the sanctuary. He pointed to the wall directly behind the organ.
“Water was coming through the wall,” she recalled. “It glistened on the wall behind the organ.”
Moisture had infiltrated through a leaky roof and into the main walls of the sanctuary. It would cost around $100,000 to fix the damage.
The church launched a professional assessment of the building to get a clearer picture of what it was up against. The picture wasn’t pretty. Addressing the most pressing problems (wall damage, mold, leaky foundations and such) would cost $300,000 — money the church just doesn’t have.
Church members slowly came around to the reality that the building couldn’t be saved.
“It’s just a thing, but it’s such a beautiful thing,” Remington said. “We try to remember that the church is not the building, it’s the people in it.”
That doesn’t mean they aren’t heartbroken.
“It’s such a classic old structure,” said Dave Remington, Wanda’s husband. “It’s really part of the identity of Pendleton.”
Church member Harold Nelson has a special relationship with the building. He’s the guy who oversees the vintage boiler and the boiler before that. In earlier days, he said, the church was heated with wood, then coal and then oil. Nelson is also the guy who changes the lightbulbs in the sanctuary and does anything mechanical.
“This church has been a home for me for 48 years,” Nelson said. “I’ve spent many hours here looking after it.”
One of the church’s missions is looking after the poor. Each Sunday, the church provides space for Veda’s Breakfast, which offers a meal to people who are homeless or others who can’t afford a meal. When the congregation leaves, the breakfast will need another location.
Louise Thompson grew up in the old church, which had hundreds rather than dozens of members in past decades. On Christmas, there were two services.
“It was one of the strongest churches in the community,” Thompson said. “It was a wonderful place. It was an amazing time.”
The congregation decided to sell the church in a package with two houses on the property and a parking lot for $410,000. Pierce expects the buyer to salvage the stained glass, organ and other items and sell the two other buildings (one houses Legal Aid Services of Oregon and the other is the former parsonage) and the parking lot.
“It’s a steal,” Pierce said, adding that he’s already had inquiries.
Once the church sells, the congregation will look for property on which to build a smaller building. Pierce said other churches have offered space in the interim for members to gather.
One thing is certain, they say: The church will stay together. Most of the parishioners go out to breakfast together at The Saddle after each week’s service.
“We do a lot of laughing,” said Virginia Conrad. “But behind the laughing is a lot of emotion.”
Pierce, following the lead of his congregation, stays upbeat and focused on the positive, even when talking about moving from the beloved church.
“We’re going to have the mother of all yard sales,” Pierce said.
Contact Kathy Aney at email@example.com or 941-966-0810.