As he stood in the spacious, high-ceilinged entryway to Plymouth United Church of Christ Thursday afternoon, David Huber couldn’t help but reflect on a very different view he had of that site two years ago.
On this warm, sunny mid-September day, person after person entered the church at 2010 Moholt Drive on Eau Claire’s west side, gathering there for a ceremony to celebrate the new structure. Many shook the hand of Huber, the church reverend. Others gazed at the attractive new building, a larger, more modern version of its former self.
Two years earlier, in the early morning hours of Sept. 22, 2016, Huber stood near that same spot, watching the church where he loved to lead worship services burning to the ground after a lightning strike sparked a fire there.
Huber was awakened by a ringing phone at about 1:45 a.m. that morning and failed to answer it, thinking it was a wrong number. Another call a few minutes later got his attention, and a moment later he picked up his phone to hear the voice of one of his parishioners excitedly tell him “The fire department is trying to get a hold of you.”
He immediately called the Eau Claire Fire Department and was told Plymouth was burning. He hopped into his vehicle and sped the familiar route, turning from West Clairemont Avenue onto Moholt Drive. As he sought a spot to park he noticed the flashing lights of numerous police cars and fire trucks.
He parked and walked up the driveway toward the church. More fire trucks, more flashing lights. Then he saw another light, this one bright-orange flames taller than trees that had engulfed part of the church.
Huber felt his stomach lurch, his heart pounding. “Oh my God,” he thought. “The church is really on fire.”
Later that day Plymouth member Deb Zehms and others at the church gathered to both mourn their loss and meet with insurance company representatives to begin the long process of constructing a new place of worship.
“It was surreal,” she said of surveying the burned church, which sustained about $300,000 in damage. “I remember the burned smell. It permeated everything.”
Three days after the fire Huber and his church members joined the congregation at Truax Congregational United Church of Christ, where they worshiped for the following two Sundays before finding a home at Grace Lutheran Church, 202 W. Grand Ave.
During the initial months after the fire, Huber did his best to get Plymouth’s members through the loss of their church.
“A lot of my sermons then were about how do we get through tough times,” Huber recalled. “I was trying to remind them that God is with us ... the idea that these things happen, but we come back.”
The message was meant for more than just those listening to his sermons, Huber said. He also needed an emotional boost at the time.
“Some of that was a message I needed to hear myself,” he said.
Zehms said she and fellow church members were grateful for the opportunity to worship at Grace. In addition to that church’s congregation, the building was home not only to Plymouth but to a local group of Quakers.
“There was something really special about having these three churches living in the same building for a while,” Huber said.
As time progressed, however, Plymouth’s members said they were ready to move back to their own building. They missed their familiar setting, Zehms said, the ample light and beautiful natural setting and sometimes watching deer meander past the church’s windows.
Working through insurance issues and getting the new church building project off the ground took time. Eventually construction began, and church members busied themselves with helping plan the new structure. They praised Lien & Peterson Architects and Marawood Construction Services for creating a structure that fits the congregation’s needs. The new church is about the same size as the old one but includes a more open design and larger work spaces.
“We wanted a place where everyone walked in and felt welcome. That is who we are,” said Zehms, who had input on the planning process.
Last month work on the new church — including a covered drive-under at the church’s entrance — was complete and the congregation returned to a new space at their old home.
On the first Sunday morning after moving back, Zehms and her fellow parishioners listened to Huber’s sermon. He talked about the journey from the fire to a new church, and the ups and downs of the two years between those events. As Huber talked Zehms felt emotions well inside her.
“As I listened to David, it hit me that we had been away for so long,” Zehms recalled Saturday as she and her husband, Keith, watered landscaping at Plymouth. “It felt like home was wrapping its arms around us.”
At Thursday’s celebration ceremony for the new church, people toured the structure and its members proudly showed it off.
“This is such a nice space,” church member Lil Savage said as she gave tours of the building to visitors.
As he met with well-wishers attending the ceremony, Huber experienced similar emotions. At one point he gazed at the church, then looked away and smiled.
“It feels good to be home,” he said.