When the old Southside Elementary School went up for auction, few had the vision to repurpose the 33,000-square-foot facility. The members of Trinity Bible Church, led from its inception by Pastor Don Thomas with wife Mary by his side, were the only bidders.
“When our small congregation bought the school, we thought, ‘What in the world are we going to do with this space?’” Mary said.
The Thomases had envisioned transforming the Southside building into a place to worship, purchased for a song compared to building new. Three years later, the former school is a thriving house of God for a growing congregation. With half rented to Powell Christian School, every corner is in use.
The Thomases couldn’t be happier with their congregation’s home in the school.
The couple recently looked back on that decision while sitting in their current basement apartment in the old Immanuel Lutheran Church, with the sound of power tools whirring on the floor above them.
The pair was planning to host about 20 members of Trinity for Bible study the following night. It would be crowded in their apartment, but they’d make do.
Soon, there will be room for everyone. The Thomases purchased the Immanuel church at auction — again the only bidders. When construction ceases, they will move upstairs, increasing their living space by about 5,500 square feet.
A gathering place
As construction moves forward, it’s not hard to imagine the former Immanuel Lutheran Church being a great home to the parents of seven children and 19 grandchildren (and counting).
The towering main entrance on Fifth Street is filled with light. Up the stairs, it opens to what was once the chapel. Timbers and new hardwood floors warm the clean, open space. Rooms are arranged so each has exposed beams.
“It’s the same issue with this place,” Don said. “What is a family going to do with a house this big?”
The other building — the old Southside converted to Trinity’s new church — is totally being used right now, he said.
“Every square-inch of it,” he said. “It won’t be long before the same will be true here.”
Just as they did with the outdated school, the Thomases have big plans. As is true with every home, space is carved out for family.
“Just for a Thomas Thanksgiving dinner, we number 34,” Mary said.
When the Thomases are not bringing their family together, the home will act as a gathering place for their church family.
“People gave their offerings, their gifts, for a purpose,” Don said. “And that was for it to be a house of God. What we shared with the Lutheran church is we bought this to remain a house of God — just a smaller church family instead of a big congregation.”
Instead of crowding into their basement apartment, church groups will have room to stretch out in the expansive living spaces.
When missionaries come to town, they’ll have a comfortable place they can temporarily call home, Don said.
He’s also on the board of Serenity Pregnancy Resource Center, and the basement apartment may be used as a shelter for young women who need somewhere to stay — a place they can feel safe.
The couple wanted to be centrally located in Powell. Their previous home was in a rural setting outside of town. They felt isolated and wanted a change — to live in a place with many neighbors that felt approachable to strangers.
Even while the construction project is underway, several have knocked on their door. Some are curious about the project or want to welcome their new neighbors. Others see the church as a place they might find help during desperate moments.
“We’ve met more people in the five months we’ve been here than we ever met in the 12 years we were out on Road 8,” Don said.
This past winter on several occasions, total strangers approached the new residents to asked if they could help shovel their walks. Friendships ensued.
As they thought about moving into town, the couple looked at many options in Powell and dreamed of a way to be more accessible to the community. The closer to people, the better.
“We explored a lot of options. We just wanted to be downtown where people are. We thought being able to walk out and greet people would be a blessing,” Don said.
Now that dream has come true.
Doing it right
They didn’t just dream — they studied the possibilities.
One of their favorite resources was television shows that demonstrated repurposing buildings — everything from warehouses to barns — into homes.
One thing they learned was the need for a contractor and architect. By watching others’ attempts, the Thomases knew the importance of doing it right so there weren’t added expenses from having to redo work.
They turned to Griffin Built Homes as their contractor.
“They’re doing a great job. We couldn’t have asked for a better crew,” Don said. “People have a lot of vision to do different things, to turn a castle or a movie theatre into a house, but many of them didn’t have a contractor. They would get things out of order and they would go over budget.”
Finances were an important part of the decision. But repurposing ultimately saved them hundreds of thousands of dollars. The cost of refurbishing the church is a drop in the bucket of what it would have cost to build new.
“We couldn’t have afforded to build a house this size from scratch,” Don said.
As the new home nears completion, the couple already added their first piece of art. A large sign, constructed with distressed wood and visible through the large windows in the entryway, uses the latin word Tetelestai — it is finished.
The message has important religious significance to the Thomas family, but it also speaks to the project at hand. They’ve been working and living in construction zones since the purchase of the Southside school. For some, the stress of living in a construction project may be overwhelming. The Thomases just roll with the punches.
“Maybe that’s why this doesn’t seem so daunting. We’ve been through this before,” Mary said.
The couple plans to stay in their new home until they move to a better place.
“This is a transitionary place. We’re only here temporarily,” Don said. “Eventually we’ll be moving to the home God has given us in heaven.”
Fortunately, the construction project in heaven is already complete.