New Life for Historic Church

When parishioners at St. John the Baptist Church in Glandorf come to Easter Mass, they'll see a new creation in their history church.

Photos of the restoration can be viewed at the bottom of this post.

The  exiled people of Saint John the Baptist Church in Glandorf, Ohio, will walk into their church on Easter Sunday morning and see the splendor and glory of a major restoration project for the first time. Won’t that be a wondrous thing?

The historic church, which was dedicated in 1878, was full of scaffolding from floor to ceiling earlier this year as craftspeople from Conrad Schmitt Studios of New Berlin, Wisc., sanded and filled and painted and preserved nearly every square inch of the interior.

The pastor, Fr. Tony Fortman, C.PP.S., anticipates the project to be completed in time for Easter, as scheduled.

The three-month project was funded by a successful capital campaign in the parish, said Fr. Fortman. “The people of Glandorf have donated over $1 million in the past two years to maintain and protect this church,” he said.

The project has been planned for seven years. “We were noticing cracks and flaking in the plaster,” he said. “You may not think it’s necessary to fix them right away, but if you don’t take care of it, the problem gets worse. There’s a lot that you can’t see from 53 feet away (the distance from floor to ceiling)—you may see a crack but it’s a lot bigger than it looks.”

A lot goes into preserving a church that is on the National Register of Historic Places. Challenges present themselves at almost every step along the way. On the walls and ceiling of the church, for instance, is calcimine paint, a water-based paint containing zinc oxide, glue and coloring. Simply paint over it, Fr. Fortman said, and the new paint will flake almost immediately.

Instead, the Conrad Schmitt crews installed a thin layer of fiberglass that will preserve the old paint and hold the new.

Other artisans applied 23-carat gold leaf to the tops of the columns and the rosettes. (A rosette is a round, stylized decorative item often found in historic churches.) Others are working on restoring murals or the calligraphy that spells out “He Dwelt Among Us and Redeemed Us” above the sanctuary.

Few can do the sort of work that the church requires. Conrad Schmitt recruits craftspeople from across the nation, said Josh Blegan, the project foreman. The company hires both artists, who are expected to have formal art education, and decorators, who go through an internship with the company, he said.

Crew members who are working at St. John the Baptist are staying in a home the parish owns in Glandorf and at an apartment in nearby Ottawa. They usually work for three weeks at a time then can go home for a long weekend, Blegan said.

Some of their work is preserving, and some is undoing work that went before, he added. “These buildings were built with a lot of love and care, then we went through a weird period in the 1960s and 70s when it was ‘anything goes,’” Blegan said. “Today, we’ve come back to where we’re trying to match the original craftsmanship.”

At St. John the Baptist, a local crew is working to restore the church’s original entryway, which was covered by drywall at some point in its past. When the project is finished, parishioners will see a part of the church that has been hidden away for years.

Parishioners are an important part of the process, Fr. Fortman said. Joe Schroeder, who heads up parish maintenance, is always nearby to offer help or advice. Parish Council President Eric Kaufman acts as liaison between the contractors and parish leadership. He double-checks the work performed by the crews and also keeps an eye on the contract and the schedule. Business Manager Ashley Duling is overseeing the finances of the project. Mike Leach, the parish historian, is offering valuable insights on the interior designs.

Presumably, everyone else is praying for the safety of the workers and the success of the project. While the project goes on in the church, Fr. Fortman presides at Mass in the gym of the nearby Glandorf Elementary School, which the parish owns. The gym can seat 500 people in the bleachers and an additional 300 in chairs that parish volunteers set up and take down each day, according to the parish and school schedules. Mary Ellen Halker coordinates that and lets volunteers know how many chairs will be needed, and when.

“It’s going well,” Fr. Fortman said. “We took pictures of all the stations, mounted them on cardboard and put them on the gym walls. The altar and ambo are on wheels so that we can roll them on and off the gym floor. Everything we had in church, we have over in the gym.”

Now that much of the restoration has been completed, statues and other surfaces will be cleaned with vinegar and water, the church will be vacuumed, and everything that’s now in the gym will be moved back to the church. 

As lovely as it will be to enter the restored church on for the Easter vigil or on Easter morning, the real church is the congregation itself, not the walls or ceiling of the church building.

“This has been a learning moment for us,” he said. “We keep talking about how the church is not a building—it’s the people of God. If the church building was ever destroyed, we’re still a church.”