Southern Illinois church reopens nearly two years after devastating fire

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HOYLETON, IL (KTVI) - A southern Illinois church is rising from the ashes, 20 months after lightning sparked a fire that nearly burned it to the ground.

“I spent four or five hours over here on the highway in a chair watching the building burn and just wondering what the future was going to hold,” said Rev. Howard Self, Zion Evangelical United Church of Christ in Hoyleton, Illinois.

For the third time in its history, the congregation has been put to the test. The first church building was also struck by lightning nearly 160 years ago.

“They built the building and finished Saturday night, and expected to worship in it Sunday,” Rev. Self said. “And a storm came through that night and lightning struck caught fire and burned to the ground.”

In this latest fire, the roof and steeple were destroyed, and the inside was severely damaged from water and smoke. The overall structure of the building remained sound, which is why church leaders decided to repair instead of rebuild.

“It is extremely satisfying to see the facility restored and restored in such a way that we've been able to honor our responsibility as stewards of the earth,” Rev. Self said.

On the outside, the repairs are obvious: there is a completely new roof and a brand new steeple.

“A fairly significant crack if you trace it,” Rev. Self said.

Sadly, the historic bell, which sat atop the church for more than a century, was damaged beyond repair. It has been replaced with a state-of-the art electronic system called a carol-on that sounds every bit like the real thing.

On the inside, the transformation is even more remarkable. Crews from Gravois Millwork and Plaining used lasers to recreate an exact replica of the damaged woodwork in the sanctuary.

The organ is brand new as well, as are all of the utilities, from the lighting to heating and cooling systems, each replaced with new high-efficiency units.

“When the church was originally built, it was dedicated to the service of God. Were it not for God, we would not be where we are now,” Rev. Self said.