When a fire raged through St. Mary’s and St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Iron Mountain, Mich., in January 2003, it wasn’t the first time. In fact, the 75-year-old church had survived three fires before that. But many feared this blaze might be different.

The insurance company was skeptical that the church could be saved; fire had burned through the altar and destroyed nearly half of the roof. The insurance company wasn’t the only skeptical one—even Gundlach Champion Inc., Houghton, Mich., project manager Jim Ebli said he had his doubts when he first viewed the damage two days after the fire had been extinguished.

“I’ll never forget it,” Ebli said. “Looking around at the devastation, peering up at the bright blue sky through the partially burned out roof, seeing icicles hanging from the roof rafters.”

Ice, from the thousands of gallons of water used to extinguish the fire, covered the entire first floor. There was an 8-foot-high mound of roof debris piled where the altar was located.

“Everywhere we walked, the smoke smell was overwhelming. During the entire inspection, you had to wonder if the building could ever be saved,” he said.

But the congregation and Father Daniel Zaloga had every intention of rebuilding. There were signs of hope; Zaloga said the picture of Our Lady of Perpetual Help came through the fire unscathed. Interestingly, the same picture survived a fire in 1938.

“It should have melted,” he said.

There was a lot of hope in the idea of rebuilding. Ebli said he had several advantages on his side. As Gundlach Champion was the leader of the design-build team, it was able to self-perform much of the general trades work, select the designers/engineers and have the owner assist in the selection of major subcontractors.

“Because of this delivery system, we were able to assemble a team in which everyone involved was part of the process from day one of reconstruction. This team concept carried through the entire project,” he said.

That team included MJ Electric Inc., also of Iron Mountain, a company that Gundlach Champion was very familiar with. MJ Electric had been the electrician of choice for both Ebli and the church for decades.

Four years before, the company had rewired the church’s lighting fixtures and added new wiring to the panels. The lights’ dimness had concerned church leaders, therefore, MJ Electric raised the wattage with new sockets.

But that couldn’t prevent the January 2003 fire that erupted in a closet. By the time the fire had been extinguished, the fire department had used 100,000 gallons of water, which poured down the stairs into the church’s basement and pooled about a foot deep in the kitchen and meeting room.

MJ Electric project coordinator Gary Oloier arrived within the first few days after the fire, along with Ebli. The electrical contractor’s workers immediately started restoring power to the building to allow heat to be turned on. That involved ensuring the electrical panel behind the altar, which had been partially burned, was shut off and disconnected before connecting temporary power to the roof and running heat in the basement.

After that, MJ Electric waited to do more work, while Gundlach Champion worked with the insurance company to determine what funds would be allocated for reconstruction. In the meantime, Ebli said, workers removed the pews for salvage, with the exception of some that had been destroyed.

They cleared debris and stabilized the structure so they could begin demolition. All the plaster, drywall and the kitchen appliances were removed.

“We also started some design work,” Ebli said.

The team—working with the architect and the church leaders—decided how the church could be rebuilt in keeping with modern codes while maintaining the some of the existing Gothic theme. During this time, contractors were fighting the frigid temperatures and snow and ice that comes with a typical January in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

Zaloga envisioned reworking the ceiling. He also hoped for a larger vestibule and choir loft, with an elevator to help disabled people reach the loft. By June, the insurance company reached agreement with the church and the team was cleared to begin reconstruction.

“The first major activity was erecting a scaffold system which spanned from the altar area to the choir loft.” said Ebli.

That scaffolding was in place for eight months and allowed contractors and artists to access every square inch of ceiling, some of which are 48 feet high.

The church hoped to salvage what it could, especially the stained glass windows, which were donated by parishioners and were valued by the congregation. The heat of the fire had melted the lead around the glass panes and a number of glass companies said they could not be repaired. O’Brien Stained Glass removed the glass from the windows and transported it to the company’s shop in Rollingstone, Minn.. It spent eight months cleaning and reconditioning the windows.

Work worth the wait

“We had to wait until the architect was done designing the new roof and altar and then we had to design the electric around that,” Oloier said.

In addition, the company needed to work around the new HVAC system being installed. The system would provide air conditioning and a fresh air ventilation and included diffusers and grilles hidden into the walls and transitioned into ceilings to blend in with the artwork.

Not only did MJ Electric have to work around the HVAC contractors and artists, it had to produce lighting that would remain in keeping with the church’s modified Gothic theme. That was one area of the project where cooperation was important.

“We’re very customer-oriented,” Oloier said. “Electrical wiring doesn’t scare us at all.”

Where guidance was needed, however, was determining which lighting fixtures would be best as well as determining where spotlights belonged, such as over the baptismal font. When it came to lighting, MJ Electric gave the church plenty of options. The new state-of-the-art system includes a dimming switch on remote that gives Zaloga control over the lighting in the church. With the remote device, he can adjust the lighting throughout the services to the appropriate level.

“The lighting in the whole building is magnificent,” Zaloga said, “It’s just very elegant.”

MJ Electric installed a new fire alarm system and connected it to valves for the sprinkler system, triggering the alarm in the event of water flow. MJ Electric also pulled the wires for the public address system and assisted Acoustical Solutions, Green Bay, Wis., in the installation. The church also has wiring in place for a new pipe organ.

The mold and water damage in the basement had caused contractors some grief. After clearing the area of mold, the kitchen was redesigned and MJ Electric connected the wiring for the installation of all new appliances.

A place for worship, ASAP

One major goal for all those involved was to get the parishioners back in their church as soon as possible. Until that happened, the 800 families met for services at the public high school, neighboring churches, a synagogue and the Catholic elementary school across the street.

From the beginning it was a fast-track, design-as-you-build endeavor, and contractors had to be willing to accommodate that schedule. By the end of July, MJ Electric had the lighting finished.

“We were scheduled to get it done as quick as we could,” Oloier said. “Did we get held up by design changes? Yes. We wanted to do it the right way and if that takes an extra month, so be it.”

The 2004 Easter service was held at the church, Ebli said, although it was in the newly refurbished basement.

His final impression of the work could be summarized in a few words, “It’s gorgeous, just gorgeous.”

Zaloga attributes much of the reconstruction’s success to the openness of the contractors. “All the contractors gave us their private numbers,” Zaloga said.

When the church was completed, the building that seemed beyond salvage became an award-winning structure, earning the 2005 AON Build America Award for the design-build category. This Associated General Contractors Award is considered by some to be the Academy Award of the building industry.

However, it wasn’t about the awards.

“This wasn’t just a project. They cared about us. We were like a family,” Zaloga said. When the dedication Mass was celebrated at the church, Zaloga said he was pleased to have the contractors there. “There was just a wonderful spirit of cooperation.”    EC

SWEDBERG is a freelance writer based in western Washington. She can be reached at claire_swedberg@msn.com.