SYRACUSE — Mary Lou Pickerill has attended the same church in the same town for nearly 79 years.

"I've never missed a Sunday," the 86-year-old said.

But this Sunday was a special one.

The Syracuse United Methodist Church — which Pickerill has attended since 1939 — held its first service in its new church building on Sunday at the corner of Sixth and Chestnut streets, after its original 100-year-old building burned down in a devastating fire four years ago.

The atmosphere was optimistic and joyous as Rev. Gary Ganger began the service. 

"This new day is fresh with possibility," Ganger said to 112 church members who attended. 

Construction of the new church building began last May and was completed this month. In the years between buildings, the congregation held services in a rented space. 

During Sunday's service, Ganger passed around a framed, singed piece of paper pulled out of the rubble of the old building shortly after the Jan. 5, 2014 fire cause by a faulty electrical system.

On the paper was a hymnal Ganger felt particularly symbolic for the day — "We Shall Overcome."

He then led the congregation in singing it.

Becki Neemann, whose family has belonged to the church since 1976, cried when 1 Kings 8:22-61 was read at the beginning of the service. The passage describes the prayer Solomon said when dedicating his new temple in Jerusalem — a passage Ganger felt was most appropriate on this occasion. 

Her husband, Bruce Neemann, chairs the building committee that oversaw construction of the new church and is also the fire chief in Syracuse.

When the old building burned down, it was a mess, he said.

"We made a lot of memories in there," he said. All three of their children had been baptized in the old church and their daughter was married there.

Today, large windows allow for plenty of natural light into the one-level building — fewer stairs was the first thing on the building committee's wish list. The old building had seven flights of stairs. 

There are classrooms for Sunday school, offices for staff and a kitchen they're putting the final touches on this month.

For years, the congregation worked to raise money and make plans for a new building after an overwhelming 62 of the 67 ballots cast by the congregation in September 2014 supported a rebuild.

Brianne Wilhelm, the Neemann's daughter, served on the building committee as an interior designer for the new building. She said they tried to go for a warm, homey feel that kept elements of their old church but represented a new start as well.

"We wanted dark wood like in the old church, but we also wanted a clean and updated look," she said.

Stained glass windows from the original church, built in 1910, were also preserved for the new building's main entrance.

"We're so happy with the result," Wilhelm said.

It wasn't just the congregation who attended on Sunday. Family, friends and anyone who had a close connection to the community also came, including the building's architect.

Rod and Cindy Loftis, who drove 50 minutes from Omaha to attend the service, had been following the church's rebuilding process for years.

"It's beautiful in here," Cindy said. "I hope it brings people back and helps the church grow."

Members of the church snacked on homemade baked goods, caught up with friends and hugged each other hard in the building they worked together to create. 

Pickerill, who serves on multiple committees within the church through her nearly eight decades of attendance, said that the process for making a new building exemplified how the close-knit congregation is.

"It's wonderful," she said. "Our community is very supportive."

Reach the writer at 402-473-7223 or hmuslic@journalstar.com.

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Reporting intern

Hana Muslic is a reporting intern.

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