Waves of tears and emotion greeted the ushers at a historic German Village church as they handed out palm branches and bulletins to the incoming parishioners.
Many of the people who came in the South Third Street entrance of St. Mary of the Assumption Catholic Church hadn't been inside the 151-year-old building in more than 2 1/2 years, since it was struck by lightning in August 2016 and then closed in October 2016.
But on Palm Sunday, April 14, after setting their umbrellas down just inside the front doors and stepping into the nave, parishioners were greeted by familiar beige walls. Paintings of biblical scenes were spaced between stained-glass windows and massive lights hanging from the ceiling dangled above their heads as hymns echoed from the choir.
"It really was phenomenal," said Bonnie Wake, 69, a lifetime parishioner and fourth-generation member of the church. "I had seen the church as it was progressing, but this was the real deal. It took your breath away."
The church, which originally was built in 1868, was struck by lightning Aug. 25, 2016, and after structural engineers inspected the building two months later, it was closed for concerns over its structural integrity.
Mike Hartshorn – co-chairman since May 2017 with his wife, Peggy, of a campaign to raise money to restore the church – said the initial budget to repair the church was $5.5 million, but by early 2018, it had increased to nearly $7 million. In December 2018, the figure approached $8 million.
Although the project stalled in 2017 because of a lack of funds, Hartshorn, 72, of Worthington, said the campaign was able to raise the $8 million needed, thanks to many generous people.
That money not only restored the church, but added in new front steps, a memorial prayer garden and new stained-glass windows.
"One donor, who made a $1 million donation, ended up giving more," Hartshorn said.
"And there were other large donors, too, but there were also plenty of small donors who gave up breakfast or washing their cars over a weekly basis.
"Others who had originally donated came back and gave more."
The Rev. Kevin Lutz, pastor of the church, led Sunday's Mass as he has for many years, but this one was different. Instead of delivering his sermon in the gymnasium at St. Mary Catholic School, he was able to give it from his church.
As parishioners left after Mass, Lutz greeted them with handshakes and hugs in front of the church, where it was no longer raining. Many choked up with tears in their eyes and said it felt like home.
"Many people said coming back to the church where they were married, had their First Communion or were baptized, felt like they were reliving those moments again," Lutz said.
"It felt like a homecoming. To us, it felt like a return to our promised land."