Portland church hit by tornado welcomes back worshippers

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PORTLAND, Mich. (WOOD) — It’s perhaps the single-most striking image of the aftermath of the Portland tornado — the photo of a church bell tower that plummeted to the pews of the sanctuary.

For the First Congregational Church of Portland, the rebuilding process still isn’t over. The building was badly damaged in the June EF-1 twister.>>Photos: Damage after tornado in Portland

But Sunday morning, members of that church celebrated a major milestone. Exactly 11 months since the storm hit, parishioners finally got the chance to worship in their newly rebuilt sanctuary.

Before service, church moderator Tom Huggler recalled the initial damage.

“I just got a lump in my throat and the tears just started,” he said upon seeing the destruction.

Now, they have gone from rubble — to renewal. The church bell, which was salvaged in the storm, rung out yet again to start the morning service.

“It’s a beautiful sound,” Huggler said. “That bell was first put up there in 1906.”

And the church — rich in history — has been around far longer.

“We have people whose great-great-great-grandparents were founding members of this church in 1843,” Huggler said.

That’s what makes part of the rebuild so special. The new sanctuary is a near-replica of the original.

“The feeling is overwhelming. It really is,” Huggler said.

The nearby fellowship hall has been the congregation’s gathering place for the past year, but it’s inside the sanctuary where the parishioners truly feel home.

“It’s just a beautiful feeling. To think that we are back here,” said Roberta Helms.

Church leaders were able to salvage a few things in the storm — their bell, the organ and some pews.

But most important of what remains is the people. No one was seriously hurt when the tornado swept through Portland.

“It’s a gift from heaven, I can tell ya,” parishioner Dean Ball said upon returning to the sanctuary.

“You know the Lord’s at work, because how can we get this back like this and make it look so beautiful again? We can’t. It’s through the Lord,” Ball continued.

Huggler added that the storm was a bit of a blessing in disguise for the church. He said church leaders had discovered all of the beams were full of termites and were “an accident waiting to happen.”

Four churches were damaged in Portland when the twister tore through. The rebuilding continues at First Baptist Church as well. They hoisted their church bell into the new bell tower earlier this week.Inside woodtv.com:Complete Portland tornado coverage

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