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At Mitchell's First Presbyterian Church, Easter brings renewal of faith, church stone

Work to repair stone exterior now underway

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A boom lift that sits on the lawn of the First Presbyterian Church for the renovation on April 14, 2022.
Adam Thury / Mitchell Republic
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MITCHELL — Easter is when Christians around the world celebrate resurrection and renewal. It arrives when the cold of the winter is finally being pushed back by the growing warmth of spring, bringing new life to formerly frozen ground.

In addition to the spiritual renewal that comes with the holiday, one congregation in Mitchell is experiencing a literal physical renewal. First Presbyterian Church in Mitchell is now undertaking an extensive restoration project on its stone exterior, work that should enhance both the cosmetic and structural integrity of the building.

“This is a project that we’ve been trying to work on for 40 years,” said Martin Christensen, an elder with the church. “It’s been passed down from one generation to another.”

The church is home to the oldest religious organization in Mitchell, according to the church website, having been founded in 1879. Later in its history, the congregation acquired a lot at the corner of Fourth Avenue and Rowley Street and in May of 1882 dedicated a new church building for the congregation to call home.

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A window of the First Presbyterian Church that is already re-caulked on April 14, 2022.
Adam Thury / Mitchell Republic

The current church building, located at 500 E. Fifth Ave. in Mitchell, was built in May 1952, and has provided a place to worship for its members and guests ever since.

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The church is particularly notable for its striking stone exterior, which is the focus of the restoration underway. Christensen said the primary work being done involves tuck pointing, a process used to cosmetically enhance the appearance of masonry. It involves removing a portion of the deteriorated mortar, filling the joints with new mortar and then applying a thin line of putty in a contrasting color down the center of the joint.

The building has needed the work for some time, Christensen said. While the appearance of the joints between stone blocks has degraded over the years, the structural integrity of the stones themselves has weakened. Christensen said some of the stone blocks could be moved by hand with enough effort.

The restoration work should help address that, he said.

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The First Presbyterian Church that sits on the corner of east 5th St and north Davison St that is surrounded by workers equipment while under renovation on April 14, 2022.
Adam Thury / Mitchell Republic

“The process is cutting between all the bricks and replacing (the old cement) with modern-day cement that expands. They’re also doing some caulking and they’ll seal it with a polymer and make that process last longer,” Christensen said. “It’s something that should have been done years ago. There are places where you could slide the stone back and forth.”

It may have taken longer than desired, but the congregation stepped up to finally get the work done, Christensen said. The cost of the project comes in at around $55,000, and the church has been holding a variety of fundraisers. Church members have been dedicated and generous in their time and donations, he said. Raffles, group dinners and memorial donations have all been part of the efforts to raise the needed funding.

“We’ve been doing multiple fundraisers since last fall to make it happen. And people have donated. We have close to $28,000 raised,” Christensen said. “We did a gun raffle with County Fair and we also did a fall spaghetti meal at the church and people came out and donated to that.”

The work is being done by Mid-Continental Restoration, a company headquartered in Fort Scott, Kansas, that has a branch office in Parkston. The company has specialized in preserving and revitalizing building exteriors throughout the United States for 75 years. The Parkston branch covers work for the company in South Dakota, North Dakota, Nebraska, Minnesota and Iowa.

Travis Leischner, project manager and estimator for Mid-Continental Restoration, said the exterior of the church is made at least partially of limestone, with some of it likely a specific type of limestone known as Kasota limestone, which is quarried in southern Minnesota. Notable buildings that used Kasota limestone in their construction include the Minnesota State Capitol, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and PNC Park, where the Pittsburgh Pirates play their home games.

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A Mid-Continental Restoration truck sitting outside of the First Presbyterian Church on April 14, 2022.
Adam Thury / Mitchell Republic

Workers at the site are now in the process of replacing the mortar joints that have weakened from decades of exposure to the South Dakota elements.

“We are grinding out the mortar joints that are bad and tuck pointing them back,” Leischner said. “We will pressure wash the whole building and then reseal the stones around the windows with a sealant. We’ll then put a water repellant on when it’s completed.”

The project is one of many the company plans over the course of its work year, which runs from March to around Thanksgiving and amounts to $4 million in revenue yearly. The job is progressing well and Leischner said he expected the work to be completed within a matter of weeks, assuming the weather cooperates.

That’s good news for Christensen and the approximately 75 members of First Prebysterian Church. The congregation has just over half the cost of the project raised, and he expects that process will continue as the project moves forward.

The focus of this work is mostly on the exterior of the building, but some additional work will eventually also be done, including some landscaping and an upgrade of the watering system for the grounds.

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Inside of the First Presbyterian Church on April 14, 2022.
Adam Thury / Mitchell Republic

But for now, as Easter approaches, the congregation can take comfort in knowing the work it’s putting in today will help the church building serve its members for decades to come. The spiritual renewal brought by the holiday is now extending to the physical renewal of the church building itself.

That, too, is an important part of the congregational experience, and it was time to breathe some new life into the historic building.

“It’s a project that needed to be done,” Christensen said.

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A large crack in the mortar holding the stone of the First Presbyterian Church together on April 14, 2022.
Adam Thury / Mitchell Republic

Related Topics: RELIGIONHISTORY
Erik Kaufman joined the Mitchell Republic in July of 2019 as an education and features reporter. He grew up in Freeman, S.D., graduating from Freeman High School. He graduated from the University of South Dakota in 1999 with a major in English and a minor in computer science. He can be reached at ekaufman@mitchellrepublic.com.
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