St. John's Lutheran Church of Bennington, Iowa


When a tornado nearly leveled St. John's Lutheran Church of Bennington, it seemed like a disaster.

But as members of the congregation rebuilt the 120-year-old church from the ground up, they realized starting over could make them stronger.

"We once commented that every church needs to be rebuilt every 100 years to find out how strong you are," said longtime member Mary Jane Averhoff.

Averhoff and hundreds of volunteers have worked since June to rebuild St. John's. They will gather in the new sanctuary Sunday at 2 p.m. to dedicate the building and show the community what a lot of work and faith can create.

Reminders of the old church are everywhere.

Chandeliers hanging from the sanctuary ceiling were salvaged, as were the altar and the church mailbox in the hallway. An organ in the corner played hymns in the old church, and even the sanctuary doors have a familiar feel.

The May 11, 2000, tornado knocked St. John's bell out of its steeple, and the congregation decided to put the bell back where it belonged, this time in a new 72-foot fiberglass steeple.

So, in many ways, St. John's is new and familiar at the same time.

The Rev. Dean Williams, who has shepherded the St. John's flock for five years, estimates the new building will cost about $720,000, but it would have cost close to $1.2 million if not for an army of subcontractors who donated their labor to the church.

The building comprises 11,000 square feet with a sanctuary almost twice the size of the old one. There is a spacious family life center where the congregation can gather for activities and six classrooms for the bible study and Sunday school.

St. John's is also known for its quilters who turn out about 300 blankets every year and donate them to charity. When the new floor plan was designed, the quilters lobbied for and received a room of their own, complete with an entire wall of windows for plenty of natural light.

Williams attributed the church's success to working together.

"There is a lot of compromise here," he said, "I didn't go up on top of a mountain and get stone tablets with the design carved in them and say "Thus says the Lord, this is what's going to happen"

While waiting for a new church to rise from the rubble, St. Johns congregation found a temporary home at United Methodists Church here.

Grinning, Williams noted that worshipping in another church broadened his congregation's view.

"We found out that Lutherans aren't the only ones going to heaven, there are a few Methodists, too," he said.

Jerry Mixdorf, a 24-year church member and retired John Deere engineer, acted as a kind of construction site superintendent, showing up most days to make sure the project was on track. He admitted he would not want to have to rebuild again in his life-time, but said he has seen the bring the church community together in the way only a challenge can.

"You really get to know a lot about people in the congregation," Micdorf said. "It's really turned out better than we could have hoped."

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Appearing in the Waterloo/Cedar Falls Courier, November 16, 2001