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Church prepares for start of major expansion

<i>Submitted rendering</i> First Congregational's addition will go where the small, brick, parsonage house now sits, and it will mimic the worship portion of the building shown here on the right.

Pastor of First Congregational United Church of Christ in River Falls Chris Myers confirms that the church breaks ground 10 a.m. Sunday, May 22, on a long-in-the-planning expansion and remodel project that will add 12,000 square feet of space.

Myers said the church has been doing cost-benefit analyses for several years trying to see if it should stay and expand or move to another location.

He said after a lot of soul searching, the congregation -- about 92% of it -- voted yes to building the addition and remodeling most existing space.

"We've been talking about this a long time," Myers said, later adding, "People are ready."

Myers said part of the church's analyses was looking at how it could save, move or otherwise salvage the small parsonage house that now sits to the north, where the addition will go. It proved most sensible and economical to raze the house then salvage and re-use from it all possible materials.

Demolition of the small, brick home begins the first week of June. First Congregational has been renting the home, built in 1954 and that is no longer needed for the church's pastor.

Myers said salvaging materials from the parsonage house will be one of many ecologically friendly measures taken during the project.

He agrees the measures add expense but said, "It is part of our Christian duty to be good stewards of the Earth."

Fitting in

"We're a downtown church," Myers said, adding how many members walk or bike to church and enjoy the convenient location for youth classes, music practice and other functions.

He said the church felt it important that the new addition blend into its surrounding neighborhood. People felt the green space in front of the church was "sacred ground" not to be disturbed -- often a spot for outdoor fellowship and child's play.

Myers said the project will result in a U-shaped complex with matching ends. The addition will mimic the structure opposite it.

The pastor said the last time the church added any space was in 1961. It broke ground for that during a 33-inch blizzard. The part of the building constructed in 1961 will be the middle of the "U."

Myers said Congregationalists from the east coast founded the church in 1854 and built its first worship space in 1884. That burned in 1932 but was rebuilt as it was.

He said it is interesting how each time the church has built something, it has been during economically tough times. The pastor said before the congregation voted, the church had raised two-thirds of the $2.4 million needed for the project.

Good things come

Myers said people have been talking about the addition for at least the eight years he's been pastor at the church and probably longer.

Why does it need to expand?

"We're bursting at the seams everywhere," he said.

The pastor gives the example of a big, community Thanksgiving dinner it holds each year. The current fellowship hall won't hold everyone, so the church seats people in other rooms wherever it can.

The youth group has about 40 members but functions in a room designed for about a dozen. Myers said the first ones to arrive get a chair -- others sit on the floor.

There is only one bathroom on the church's main level; an old-fashioned lift for wheelchairs and disabled people sometimes gets stuck.

He said ironically, the day after the church voted to build a new addition and remodel, the boiler broke.

The church has an antiquated furnace, a leaky roof and basement and inefficient windows and other fixtures. Myers said the remodel work will include renovating just about everything except the sanctuary.

The project will not only include 12,000 square feet of new space but also new utility infrastructure, energy-efficient windows, updated fixtures, an elevator, new bathrooms, better kitchen space and a fellowship hall that seats 300 people.

Myers said after the addition, the main level will include worship space, fellowship hall, offices, kitchen and bathrooms. Downstairs will be expanded room for youth, kids' and other activities; the music program; and storage.

The project starts the first week of June and should finish before Thanksgiving. Derrick Construction is First Congregational's construction company.

Myers said the work of packing and moving church items begins soon, but everyone is excited about the changes. The members congregated and agreed: It is time.