The little white 1850s church was situated just a mile down the road from Greg Thomas’ home in rural Montgomery.
When Thomas was diagnosed in 2009 with stage four cancer — and he later lost his job — the front steps of the church were his place to sit, to reflect and to pray.
“I used to walk up there all the time with the dogs,” said Thomas, “and I would go sit on the steps of the church and it was always closed.”
Today, the church isn’t the same dilapidated structure that he came across a few years ago, but a symbol of a fresh start. It has some new paint, and has helped to make new memories — for Thomas, for his newly married friends, their officiant and a film crew.
A fresh start
The first time Thomas set foot into the church, it wasn’t a pretty sight. There were dead insects crunching under his shoes and the floor had begun to rot because of a leak in the roof.
While the church doesn’t appear to have a name, the sign in front of the structure says “original area of Budejovice, cemetery, 1856, 1868.” Nearby are gravestones dating back generations. The building’s cedar siding had many coats of paint on it, and the corners were wearing away. Thomas said that based on his research, other than an occasional baptism, the church may not have been used in 50 years or more until recently.
Thomas was out of work, and he thought fixing up the church would give him a sort of sanctuary. First he had to find out who was responsible for the church. He learned that there was an association, and that its members weren’t able to care for it anymore — other than the grounds, which were in good condition.
He offered the association a deal: he would completely restore it, if they supplied the materials, with one condition.
“As long as they give me a key to the church,” he said.
And they agreed.
He stripped the exterior paint down to the wood, replaced the rotted boards and repainted it. He cleaned the pews, the windowsills and the altar, swept the floor and replaced floor boards. As he worked on it, people began to stop to talk or to thank him for his work.
“They’ll tell me that they’ve always wondered what the church looked like inside or that they remember it from years ago,” he said.
As the church came together, Thomas was recovering, too. After 40 sessions of radiation for cancer in his head and neck and rounds of chemotherapy, he went into remission. Today, he has difficulty swallowing, but he is cancer-free and upbeat.
“By the grace of God I’m still on this side of the dirt, so I can’t complain,” he said.
His dog, Jenny, a German shorthair pointer, fought cancer right by her owner’s side. A veterinarian removed a tumor, but at the age of 11 had complications from a heartworm. She died in Thomas’s arms about a year ago.
“That was a very heartbreaking day,” he said.
A special day
John Scherer and Greg Thomas have been friends for decades. John and his wife, Char Harris Scherer, said that Thomas used to tease them that they would get married in that church someday. And this summer, they did.
“We thought it was a very memorable place to have a wedding,” said the bride. “It was pretty special to us.”
Brian LeTourneau, a musician and Irish drumstick maker, has officiated several weddings in non-traditional places. This one was unique. He said that he could tell right away that this church meant something to the couple.
“It is so beautiful in there,” he said; “it is so peaceful.”
He got there early and toured the cemetery, uncovered gravestones and watched barn swallows fly overhead in waves. He said that it looked like rain, but when it came time for the ceremony, the skies cleared and the interior of the church was awash with sunlight.
The church has no electricity, but the original decorative elements have remained. There are paintings on the walls and antique statues. The stations of the cross once went missing and turned up at a flea market, only to be discovered and returned to the church.
For the wedding, Thomas surprised the bride and groom with vases of flowers from his yard — fresh hollyhocks, daylilies and flox. He went to great lengths to find an aisle runner and even tracked down some altar cloths from one of the groundskeepers, whose grandmother had made them years ago for the church.
John Scherer, the groom, said that Thomas made the place look as if it were an active church again.
“It meant a lot to me,” said Scherer, “and Greg is one of my nearest and dearest friends in the world.”
He said that they have stuck together through tough times, and that hardly a day goes by when they don’t talk. Thomas said that it was meaningful for him, too.
“John is bar none the best friend I’ve got and I don’t think there’s anything that I wouldn’t do for him.”
Even LeTourneau was touched. He remembers every moment that he spent at the church.
“I think I’ll always remember that day because it was so special to those people,” he said.
Greg Thomas and the newlyweds aren’t the only people who saw something in that church.
One night, Thomas was out working on the church and a couple of pickup trucks full of people pulled up. The visitors asked to look around. Then they told Thomas that they were looking for a church to use in a film, and they liked what they saw. Thomas reached out to the association to get permission for the crew to use the site, and agreed to stop working on the exterior during filming.
The film, “Memorial Day,” tells the story a young soldier and his grandfather, a World War II veteran.
Thomas said that he even had a small role in the film for a scene inside the church. He didn’t have any lines, but got to dress in WWII-era clothing and put on a grimace.
To give it an authentic WWII Germany look, the filmmakers asked to remove the steps and put in a temporary set of steps. They offered to put new steps on the church, and said if the movie did well, they would put a new roof on the building, said Thomas.
They have been true to their word, sending a cement crew out shortly after wrapping up their filming to complete the new steps. They even helped him to get the top of the church painted, because he couldn’t reach it, even standing on scaffolding. Since then, the film has been released and Thomas has completed many updates on the church.
“It’s kind of gotten its second wind...” said Char Harris Scherer. “I think that’s pretty incredible.”
Thomas and his friends are still waiting to see how the movie does, and whether they’ll get the new roof. John Scherer said that he bought six copies of the movie to hand out at the wedding.
Thomas doesn’t know what the future holds for the church. If more people inquire about using it, the association will, of course, decide how to handle it. But if Thomas can come back from stage four cancer, surely he can keep the church alive and well.
Jacqueline A. Pavek covers news in the Lonsdale area. She can be reached at 507-744-2551. Follow her on Twitter @JackiePavek.