By Lindsay Steele
The Catholic Messenger
HILLS — Aided by her blue walker, St. Joseph parishioner Joan Michel walked out of the newly installed church elevator with a smile on her face.
“It’s wonderful, it really is. It’s so much nicer than that awful, rickety old lift that didn’t work half the time,” she exclaimed as she made her way into the renovated parish hall for cake and punch.
For the past 18 months, St. Joseph Parish has been working to upgrade its 1903 church structure, which lacked handicapped-accessible bathrooms and an elevator. Father Michael Spiekermeier, the pastor, said lack of accessibility was turning away older and would-be parishioners of the small-town church.
“A lot of elderly people didn’t come because of it,” said parishioner Marcia Mellecker.
In June 2013, the parish voted to build a brick structure onto the east end of the church which would house a meeting area, a new cluster parish office, handicapped-accessible bathrooms and an elevator large enough to fit a casket. On Nov. 16, the parish formally revealed the $800,000 in improvements to the public in an open house.
In addition to making the church more accessible to those with limited mobility, Fr. Spiekermeier explained that the renovations will be beneficial during funerals and weddings. Previously, pallbearers were required to carry caskets up a flight of “steep” stairs. For weddings, the addition of the meeting space will give brides and grooms separate areas to congregate and get ready.
Parishioner Carl Cambridge said current parishioners have been using the meeting space before and after regular Mass to socialize.
In addition, the parish hall — located in the lower level of the church — was renovated. Two pillars were removed to open it up; the shaggy orange carpeting was replaced with a short gray variety and the ceiling-to-floor wood paneling was painted white and raspberry. “It doesn’t even look like the same space. It’s brighter,” said parish secretary Judy Stebral.
Parishioner Ron Knebel said he believes people will utilize the parish hall more often because of the remodel. “It’s cozy, nicer,” he said.
The new cluster parish office will now house sacramental records and be the hub for the Ss. Mary and Joseph Cluster parishes of Hills, Lone Tree and Nichols. The office includes a desk for each parish and one for Fr. Spiekermeier.
As part of the renovation project, Fr. Spiekermeier said the parking lot was resurfaced and expanded, with a drainage system installed to combat constant flooding in the area.
Fr. Spiekermeier said 80 percent of the project was funded by the Degenhardt Family Trust, with Hills Bank and Trust Company and the Marie Wolters Kral Trust providing additional funding. The new elevator, which contractor Tim Ruth of McCreedy-Ruth Construction said was custom made for church use – was funded by a grant from the Washington Country Riverboat Foundation.
Several parishioners — as well as Fr. Spiekermeier – expressed a hope that the new renovations will help the aging 130-family parish grow. Parishioner Clayton Michel said, “Hopefully, we will have a parish that will be viable. We have everything fixed for the next umpteen years.”
Added parishioner Carl Cambridge, “When more people stop in and like the (church), there is always hope for growth.”