Black storm clouds gathered. Intense non-stop winds began to blow. Sea birds disappeared. A blinding rain rolled over Galveston Island. Locals had seen this before — or so they thought.
Everyone knew that a big hurricane was brewing just off the coast, but no one knew how nasty this fellow would prove to be. This was to be the big one that old timers had predicted was someday coming. On Friday, September 13, 2008, the big one finally hit Galveston. His name was Ike. Hurricane Ike.
The I-45 North causeway linking Galveston Island to the mainland was nearly empty. Well over half of the Galveston population had already fled the island by Friday afternoon, but those who stayed would have Hurricane Ike stories to last a lifetime.
The hurricane aftermath was worse than could have been imagined. The Rev. David Green, pastor of Galveston’s First Presbyterian Church, and several church members, braved fallen trees and debris to check the church after the storm. It had taken a nasty wind-driven shower along with a long, slow soaking bath. The church was a water-logged mess.
Flash forward nearly three years. First Presbyterian held its first Sunday service in its beautifully restored church sanctuary May 22, 2011. Through the power of faith and a will to fight long odds, the church had been restored. A determined band of Presbyterians proved their strength and faith.
“Galveston’s historic church shines now as never before. The journey from Ike to restoration has been a long one,” Green said in the first sermon in the newly restored building. “Many of our talented members volunteered countless hours to supervise the work of architectural specialists.
“Your actions seemed to defy conventional wisdom. You have given more, worked more and accomplished more than anyone could have asked — or expected,” Green said.
In the year after the storm, members of First Presbyterian worshipped at a local Methodist church. Once the fellowship hall was repaired, the Presbyterians held worship there until the rest of the church was reopened.
First Presbyterian of Galveston was established in January 1840. It is the island’s first church and one of the oldest Presbyterian churches in Texas. The sanctuary was completed in 1890 and is home to three Tiffany stained glass windows. The church has been described as an architectural gem of Galveston, a city filled with lovely buildings. Many Galvestonians call the church Galveston’s historic church.
Thus, the church’s restoration task force — five committed members strong — faced many challenges. Caring craftsmen had to be selected to make sure that the original beauty and design would shine again, even after unspeakable damage.
First, the task force restored church classrooms, offices and the fellowship hall. Next came the sanctuary restoration, which presented special challenges.
In addition to the hurricane destruction, many lovely sanctuary interior details had simply faded over the decades.
“Research and creativity would be required during all phases of sanctuary restoration to be true to the original 1890 vision,” Green said.
As work began, century-old wood paneling was removed piece by piece, individually numbered, cleaned or restored and reinstalled like a giant jigsaw puzzle.
“Through hard work and diligent scholarship, an interior color and stenciling plan was crafted to make the colors of the stained glass windows and the pipe organ pipes make design sense,” said Bruce Frasier, a task force member.
The breathtaking ceiling had lost nearly all detail and was hand-painted and stenciled by specialists. The original black and white marble floors in the church narthex — long ago replaced with red-painted concrete — were restored based on old photos. Old vinyl tile beneath church pews was replaced with oak hardwood flooring. Custom woven carpeting was selected to compliment the original design scheme.
On the HVAC side, a new energy-efficient air conditioning system has been installed and carefully concealed within the ceiling, not under the floor, where AC units were destroyed by Ike. A state-of-the-art fire sprinkler system has been added to protect the church as well.
The struggles of full restoration continue, of course. The church pews, damaged by the hurricane, have survived a second disaster. During pew restoration at an Alabama specialist, the plant was hit by a tornado. All pew restoration work has been halted, with pew delivery pushed to late August.
“Our goal was to return our sanctuary to the original glory and we feel that we have met that goal. We again have a historic church that all of Galveston can be proud of,” Green said. “This restoration is a tribute to a large group of Christians believing, then acting on that belief.”
Joe Trum is an elder at First Presbyterian Church in Galveston.