By DEBORAH GERTZ HUSAR
Herald-Whig Staff Writer
PITTSFIELD, Ill. -- Pastor Mike Pierce jokingly calls Pittsfield First Baptist the oldest newest church in town.
"We believe it's the oldest church building in Pittsfield, if not Pike County," Pierce said. "But we consider ourselves a church plant, a new church."
Pittsfield First marks the latest chapter in its history with reopening and rededication events Saturday and Sunday. The events, open to the public, celebrate the church's revitalization in both membership and building.
"We're not as big as some other churches," Pierce said. "We're simple folk. We love God, serve people, preach the Good News."
The church organized in 1840 saw its membership decline in recent decades, dropping to just seven people by 2008. At the same time, the church building dating to 1847 needed major renovations.
The congregation reached out to Columbus Road Baptist Church for help. The Quincy church agreed to help rescue Pittsfield First, providing both financial and hands-on support along with its introduction to Pierce.
Pierce, serving as a youth pastor in Pennsylvania, was a friend of Bob Cowman, the pastor at Columbus Road Baptist. Pierce visited Cowman in 2008, talking about a desire to take a small country church and see where it goes. "He said ‘we have just the thing. We agreed to rescue a small country church,'" Pierce said.
Interior building renovations began in 2008 with volunteer labor and a shoestring budget. Weekly Bible studies, held in member homes, replaced Sunday services as Pittsfield First began to regroup.
Pierce and his family moved to Quincy in July 2009. He worked full-time at Vatterott College, then came to Pittsfield on weekends and some evenings for Bible study with the congregation.
Late 2009 and early 2010 brought new challenges with the discovery the roof needed major repairs, the death of long-time member Mike Lord and another family's move to Georgia. But God's work continued in the church, most noticeably in the building itself.
"It really has changed a lot. We took it down to bricks and studs. Everything got gutted," Pierce said. "It has a more modern look, a more open look."
Renovations combined the fellowship and auditorium areas into one space, converted four classrooms to three, removed a drop ceiling to open the multi-functional space and placed new trusses in the roof.
"We started with red carpet, wood paneling and pews. Now it's drywall and earth tones, and we have chairs," Pierce said. "The biggest challenge was the loss of pews. It doesn't look as churchy as it used to, but the church is a tool to reach people. We have to use the tool as creatively as possible to reach as many people as possible."
The approach seemed to work as weekly services, relaunched in 2010, moved from meeting at WBBA to the parsonage, then to a larger space at the Pike County Senior Center and back into Pittsfield First with 68 people at the Dec. 23 service.
"We want to keep growing. We love the aging part of our congregation. They've been faithful, but now we're seeing new blood, the future of our church," Pierce said.
The church building may see more changes, but "I think we can take a breather and just enjoy what God has done," Pierce said.
Additional help came from other church partners -- Calvary Baptist in Quincy, Faith Baptist in Camp Point and First Baptist in Littleton.
Pierce hopes the weekend events answer questions from the community about what's going on at the church and when was it going to be finished.
"People have a connection in the past with the church. I talk to people all the time who were married here, whose grandmother went to church here, who went to VBS," he said. "Even if you go to a different church, come on in and tell me your story. I love to hear stories of what God has done here. I'm looking forward to meeting people in the community who can add another piece of the history we experienced."
Being part of the community is important to Pierce, who moved his family to Pittsfield from Quincy in February and took on full-time ministry in July.
It's important to his congregation, too. They've offered free activities at events like Pig Days, the Fall Festival and the Pike County Fall Color Drive.
Instead of using the church's full name, "we try to go with Pittsfield First," Pierce said. "We want to remind ourselves it's not about us. It's about our community."
Events are planned Saturday and Sunday to mark the reopening and rededication of Pittsfield First Baptist Church.
º 9 a.m. -- Free continental breakfast
º 10 a.m. -- Ribbon cutting with Mayor John Hayden, Chamber of Commerce and other community officials
º 11 a.m.-4 p.m. -- Church building open for tours
º 9 a.m. -- Free continental breakfast
º 10 a.m. -- Celebration service
º 2 p.m. -- Rededication service for partner churches from Quincy, Camp Point and Littleton
Church History Highlights
1840 -- Church started on June 13 with 12 members. The congregation met in a schoolhouse and then at the old Congregational Church.
1844 -- $600 raised in pledges to start a church building. The lot on the corner of Washington and Memorial streets was bought for $75.
1847 -- Church building completed.
1848 -- Church building dedicated on June 17.
1921-22 -- Southeast children's wing added, then enlarged in 1957.
1961 -- North addition built.
2008 -- Membership declined to seven people. Columbus Road Baptist Church, Quincy, agreed to revitalize the church. Work began to gut the church building due to mold problems.
2010 -- Church resumes weekly services in June, held initially at WBBA, then the parsonage. In October, the church begins meeting at the Pike County Senior Center.
2012 -- First service back in the church building on Dec. 23 with 68 people attending.