On Sunday, Sept. 11, Mary Bridges stood apprehensively outside a big building in Chicago. It had been a long time since she’d been inside and she was a bit anxious – but not for the reasons you might think.

Bridges was getting ready to go into First Baptist Congregational Church at Washington Boulevard and Ashland Avenue for the first time in eight months. Her anxiousness had nothing to do with attacks on America by Al Qaida 10 years ago, but rather the assault on the building by the historic blizzard from February.

Even though Bridges said she wasn’t sure what it would be like to re-enter the church she’s worshipped in for the past 30 years, the wide grin on her face clearly showed excitement.

“It’s going to be awesome,” she said. “I hope I can hold my composure, because I haven’t seen it since this stuff happened, you know.”

The Sunday service was the first opportunity for Bridges and hundreds of other First Baptist parishioners to head back into the 140-year-old church since one of the building’s limestone towers collapsed seven months ago, sending huge chunks of stone crashing through the roof.

In a spirited celebration, churchgoers sang to high heaven on Sept. 11 this month. They shook the walls and the floorboards with joyous songs of victory and rebirth, testing the structural integrity of the repair work. It seemed to hold.

First Baptist’s return to the church’s ornate, old main sanctuary gave them much more space to work with than they’d had before. While they waited for the sanctuary to be rehabbed, the congregation met across the street in an impromptu worship space at Hope Institute Learning Academy. First Baptist’s pastor, the Rev. George Daniels, said that though Hope obviously wasn’t built for worship, it was a good solution while they worked to restore the main building.

“Well, the saying is that the church isn’t in the building, it’s in the heart of the people,” Daniels said before the Sept. 11 service. “The people came, and they continued to come, and they continued to support, and they understood the nature and the challenge we had before us. So it didn’t deter them from being able to come on a regular basis.”

Nevertheless, Daniels said returning to the sanctuary was a cause for rejoice.

“It’s a moment of joy, jubilation, because there’s no place like home,” he said. “Even when you go away on a vacation for two or three weeks, you get tired and you want to come home. We’re just so fortunate that we’re in a position to come home and worship the Lord in his own sanctuary.”

The damage from the February storm was extensive, not only tearing a massive hole in the ceiling but wrecking a staircase and a chamber of its prized Kimball pipe organ. While the roof has been repaired, neither the staircase nor the organ has been finished yet.

Valued at $1.2 million, the organ is one of the largest enclosed organs in the world. But a curtain hung down over the organ during the returning ceremony, as each of the tubes has been removed, is being cleaned out and repaired. Daniels is hopeful to have them done by December.

As for the staircase, the church is still not sure what to do with it. They’re still deciding if they’ll install an elevator when they repair the staircase, something the old church currently lacks. Instead, a series of chair lifts is mounted on the back entrance to the sanctuary.

All told, so far they’ve spent about $3.2 million on repairs, with more yet to be done. Much of it has been covered by insurance, but First Baptist has set up a donation fund with a $200,000 goal to help bridge the funding gap. According to Daniels, they’ve gotten about half that much.

“We’re committed to restore this building because of its historicity, and because it’s significant not only as a spiritual icon, but as a monument,” he said. “Certainly, we had some challenges, and so we’re getting past those challenges by working together. That is just a thing that happens; that’s just a part of the human experience.

“There are things that happen to us that we don’t necessarily need,” Daniels added, “but when they come and ring our doorbell and come dwell among us, we have to deal with them.”

Ben Meyerson is editor of Chicago Journal

CONTACT: bmeyerson@chicagojournal.com