JOPLIN — Against the backdrop of the stained-glass window that has become a signature piece of the building, churchgoers recently entered the newly rebuilt sanctuary of First Community Church in Joplin.
It was an emotional morning for Craig Tally, who has served as the church's pastor for more than four years.
"It's like having been in exile somewhere and coming home after 18 months," he said. "It's not like being somewhere for vacation; it's like being forced out and then being able to come home."
Nearly a year and a half after it was badly damaged in the May 2011 tornado, the church sanctuary opened its doors for a Sunday morning worship service for more than 120 of its members.
Jim Everitt, who was married in the church 43 years ago and has been a member ever since, said he was happy to have the sanctuary restored.
"We all have worked so hard to get back in," he said about 20 minutes before the start of the service. "We're going to be back in a familiar surrounding, and it's nice and new."
Eighteen months ago, the EF-5 tornado blew out the 365-panel stained-glass window on the east side of the sanctuary and blew the roof off the church. Water damage to the interior — the pews, the piano, the organ — from heavy rains during the following days was extensive.
David Mason, a 14-year member of the church, arrived at the building the morning after the tornado to survey the damage.
"Well, you know, I cried," he said. "It was just awful. That's all you can say."
Tally said he was devastated by the damage done by the tornado.
"Our early thoughts were just whether or not we were going to make it, it was so damaged — just thoughts like, 'What's it going to involve? And how are we going to do it?'" he said.
Members of the congregation met for the next eight months at Forest Park Baptist Church in Joplin, while repairs to their church's fellowship hall were under way. They had been worshipping in the hall, which is in the basement of their building until this month.
Mason had been charged with taking care of the insurance issues and overseeing the reconstruction and restoration project. He said the walls and roof of the sanctuary had to be rebuilt. The stained-glass window was installed according to its original design — 365 brand-new pieces of hand-blown glass from Germany, in shades of blue and pink, that together represent life, he said.
Everything else inside the sanctuary Sunday was also new, right down to the hymnals, visitor cards and pencils. Work continued almost right up until the end.
"Just a week ago, I was thinking, 'Is this going to happen?'" Mason said. "And it did. You've just got to put your trust in God."
After the service, the congregation presented Mason with a picture of the church, framed by pieces of the old stained-glass window, as a thank-you for his leadership in the rebuilding effort.
"I cannot begin to describe the time he's been here or in meetings or on the phone" to get the reconstruction finished, Tally said. "He's not fussed or fought harder for anything more than that window, and he's not fallen to his knees for anything other than that window."
Shirley Flood, a member of the church since it was built in 1962, said she had avoided going into the sanctuary during its reconstruction.
"I wanted to see it all at once," she said. "I love that stained-glass window."
Flood said she was happy to be back in her regular pew — and not just because the sanctuary was finally restored to its former glory.
"I don't think the pews are going to be as uncomfortable as the chairs downstairs" in the fellowship hall, she said.