October 22, 2021

New start at Grace and Holy Spirit

Bob Ellis/staff photographer

Church sexton Art Ptak, Sr. , left, and the Rev. Peter Williams chat inside the recently refurbished Grace and Holy Spirit Church. The sanctuary suffered severe smoke damage in a July 2016 fire. The pews have been removed to be cleaned and refinished, walls and ceiling repainted, and the floors have been stripped and refinished.

The Rev. Peter Williams stood Monday in the empty sanctuary of Grace and Holy Spirit Church on Court Street in Cortland, watching as a worker extended a long pole with a dusting rag at the end of it to clean a ceiling beam.

This was a final touch to rid the beams of any construction dust, as the sanctuary and other parts of the church have been cleaned and are finally rid of smoke damage left by a fire last July.

The fire, caused by an electric fan, destroyed the kitchen and an upstairs office. Nobody was injured, and Williams, pastor of the church, reflected on how fortuitous it was that he and office staff were out of the building that Friday.

“I was in Utica,” he said. And he was bemoaning the fact a crisis happened the one day he took off, until he got back and realized how lucky he was to not have been there since the flash fire rushed upstairs, destroying the office that used to be occupied by him and his secretary, who was also luckily not there at the time.

The fire swept through the lobby and upstairs, Williams said as he pointed to the new ceiling and stairs and discussed the extensive cleaning to rid the building of a pervasive smoke odor.

New seating and cabinetry were needed in the kitchen, new chairs were purchased for the sanctuary and pews are being cleaned. The horsehair cushions from the pews, which dated back to the 19th century, had to be discarded, Williams said.

The fire forced the Loaves and Fishes program to move to United Presbyterian Church next to Courthouse Park. But last week the program returned to Grace and Holy Spirit, where it feeds anywhere from 40 to 80 people at its meals, offered six days a week.

Church services moved to the SUNY Cortland Interfaith Center at Prospect Terrace and Calvert Street, and also recently returned to Grace and Holy Spirit — in the common area off the kitchen, where tables and chairs are moved to accommodate the congregation.

Williams hopes services will be in the sanctuary in time for Easter.

“It seems a beautiful time for a fresh start,” he said.

The church’s basement also houses several 12-step groups, which Williams said also moved to United Presbyterian Church, thanks to the generosity of the congregation. Grace and Holy Spirit had its first 12-step group meeting since the fire on Monday morning, Williams said, and he looks forward to renovating the basement to accommodate an improved space for the group in the future.

The church took advantage of the fact the fire forced it to make some changes to launch into a previously planned capital project. A new lift will be installed at the side of the building to make the basement and first level fully accessible to people with disabilities.

The steeple will be refurbished and new offices are also part of the capital campaign, which Williams said raised $900,000, exceeding the congregation’s expectations.

“We had a goal of $1 million but we didn’t think we’d get half that,” Williams said. “So we are very pleased.”

He said the church’s insurance has picked up the cost of fire damages, but extra changes, such as renovating space into offices, will be part of the capital project. Crown Construction did a lot of work on the sanctuary, Williams said, and Serve Pro of Binghamton did much of the cleanup work.

“Things are looking up for us,” he said.

Director of Loaves and Fishes Kim Hill said Monday that it is good to be back home at Grace and Holy Spirit. Attendance has been a little low with the transition, but she said it should pick up now that the program is back at the church.

The program offers lunch Monday, Tuesday and Thursday and dinner Wednesday and Friday and bagged lunch on Saturday.