DES MOINES (AP) - The bell is not in the bell tower, the pews and most of the fixtures were auctioned off in 1979 and what's left of the exterior paint is more suggestion than reality. But don't let that fool you. Thanks to the hard work of the church builder's great-granddaughter, great-great-grandson and many others, the Palmyra Methodist Episcopal Church lives. It does not have a congregation, but it does have plenty of dedicated followers.
Eli Myrick built the church in 1870, and according to great-great-grandson Reike Plecas, 48, for a long time it was "functioning and really mighty. They had lots of traveling Chatauqua revivals up through the early 1940s, with traveling evangelists who came to town on the train."
In its own small way, the church has continued to make itself known. The simple beauty of the building piqued the interest of the artist P. Buckley Moss, who has used it in some of her work, and it was featured in a public television show about the history of Iowa's early churches.
Still, after its heyday, the church lost its congregation and sat mostly unused. About 1978, Palmyra Township decided to raze the building, according to Barbara Plecas, 76, Reike's mother and Eli's great-granddaughter. This prompted the formation of Friends of Palmyra Church, a group dedicated to restoring the building and qualifying it for the National Register of Historical Places. "Most of the original group is deceased," said Barbara, who lives in West Des Moines, "but my mother and my aunt were active with the Friends and so I went along and was helping, too."
Getting the church placed on the National Historic Register, which Barbara accomplished in October of 1979, led to Phase I of resurrecting the little country church. It also, literally, helped put Palmyra on the Iowa map.
"My mother said to me, ‘When I have my memorial service there, no one is going to be able to find it.' So I filled out all the necessary forms with the Iowa Department of Transportation to get it on (the map)," said Barbara. "I asked if there was money to put historical site signs on Highway 5, and they said no. So I said I'd just buy them myself. But then they said they would do it."
The rest of Phase I, which didn't gather a full head of steam until 1984, focused on restoring the bare interior. Barbara was instrumental in that, too, scouring antiques shops for period-appropriate light fixtures, a pot-bellied stove, leaded windows and pews. Sunday school rooms and a balcony that had been added at some point were torn out to bring the church back to its original blueprint. Each floorboard was taken up and refinished individually by hand.
The church is now available to be used for weddings and other events.
Now the Friends of Palmyra Church are gearing up for Phase II, which is mostly about the church's exterior. A roof added during Phase I leaks and needs to be replaced again and the whole building has to be scraped and repainted by hand.
The Friends are also hoping to restore the bell to its place in the tower. It now sits inside the Palmyra Township Hall.
Once again, the Plecases and the Friends board are leading the charge. They are in the process of forming a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization and have planned a "Revival of Restoration" event at the church, both to showcase the church and to garner financial and community support for the projects yet to be done.
"We have estimates for the work; the roof will cost $11,000 and to do the exterior paint and repairs will cost about $6,000. There is also some damage inside from the leaky roof," Barbara said. "We are applying for grants, but we need matching funds."
The event will include a service featuring three preachers: Rev. Jeffrey Frese of the Carlisle United Methodist Church, Apostle Andre Brooks of the Miracle Life Family Church in Des Moines and evangelist Shirley Richardson of Chicago. Frese was honored by the invitation to speak.
"It's a church of great history and to preach there is an honor and a great opportunity. People take a lot of pride in the church," Frese said.
Frese's sermon will focus on community building, something that the Palmyra church already has a pretty good grip on. Reike Plecas said he is thrilled about the way the community has embraced the nearly 150-year-old church. "There is a lady who goes out there and cleans the church every week and someone who weeds and mows the lawn. There were people who went all over looking for leaded-glasses windows for the church."
"It is a sacred thing to build a community," Frese said. "That's the message of the gospel - to not only build community with God, but with one another."