Five years ago this spring, Greg Thomas sat on the crumbling steps of an abandoned church. Contemplating how to serve his creator during what he believed were his final days, he came upon the idea of restoring the tiny wooden church outside Montgomery, Minn. He never imagined that in doing so, he would restore his own health as well.
“It’s an amazing story,” said Thomas, 61. “I can’t tell you how many things have transpired because of that church.”
That story includes a century-old church opening its doors for the first time in 70 years, a community drawn together by its rebirth, the arrival of a Hollywood film crew and an unexpected spotlight on a former propane truck driver who was just trying to do some good.
Until 2009, Thomas lived an ordinary life. A Bloomington native, he worked as a truck driver, bricklayer, insulation installer and more. A big guy of 210 pounds, he enjoyed hunting, fishing and the quiet beauty of Minnesota farmland. Divorced, he had a son and grandson.
But in May of that year, Thomas was stunned by a diagnosis of Stage 4 neck and head cancer. He found himself with a feeding tube in his stomach, all his teeth removed and 40 rounds of radiation treatments and chemotherapy, which left him wiped out.
He returned to his house in Montgomery, about 60 miles south of the Twin Cities, not knowing if he would live or die. He said he overheard doctors tell his family that they might want to plan for a funeral, and he was “terrified.”
Solitary walks along the rural roads near his home soothed his spirit, and one day, Thomas spotted an abandoned church next to a little cemetery. Curious, he shook the door handle, but it was locked. So he sat on the steps and prayed — a move that became nearly a daily ritual.
One morning, a jolt of inspiration struck on those steps, and suddenly the wandering cancer patient had a plan. Thomas walked to a nearby farmhouse and asked who had the keys to the church. That someone was Don Rynda, an 82-year-old member of the church cemetery association.
Thomas called Rynda and shared his idea — namely to repaint the lovely old church. If the association could come up with paint money, he’d try to come up with the labor.
“I thought, ‘Am I just dreaming?’ ” Rynda recalled thinking that day. “That church has always been closed.”
St. John’s Catholic Church stands where the early Czech settlers thought the town of Montgomery would grow, he explained. Most folks in town still have family members buried at its cemetery.
The association said yes.
Bugs and beauty
It was a warm August day when Thomas unlocked the church with anticipation, stepped inside — and promptly fell through the rotted wooden floorboards.
Undeterred, he gazed across a place frozen in time. “It looked like people just left after the last service,” he said.
“All the pictures were still on the walls. The old Catholic Bible was still on the altar. The statues of Jesus and Mary were up at the altar. The candles were in their holders. Inside a little cabinet [tabernacle] in the altar were some folded blue cloth they used for holy communion.”
Stepping out of the hole onto the floor, Thomas heard the crunch of dead beetles under his shoes and noticed spider webs draped around.
“I couldn’t wait to get started!” he said.
Thomas began slowly by replacing outside shingles, working as long as his energy allowed. He filled buckets of water and cleaned the spider webs and beetles. He began scraping the outside paint.
Something funny happened, he said. The more he worked, the better he felt.
“It was like as I was rebuilding the church, God was rebuilding me,” he said.
By the next summer, the man who had hovered near death was on a scaffold outside the church, scraping paint.
One day two pickup trucks pulled up, and about 10 people spilled out. “They asked if they could look around the cemetery,” Thomas recalled.
The group explained they were a film crew looking for an old European-style church for a scene in their movie. Could they do it here?
Turned out the film starred Oscar-nominated actor James Cromwell as a World War II veteran. The script was written by Jeff Traxler, whose family hails from Le Center. Thomas was recruited to play a German soldier “extra.”
“It was my three seconds of fame,” he laughed.
No fame, but good fortune
The film, “Memorial Day” didn’t launch Thomas’ acting career. But it did launch a series of coincidences that supported a renovation with virtually no budget and one volunteer worker.
The church’s crumbling steps, for example, were replaced thanks to an unexpected offer from the film crew.
The roof was a mess, and after Thomas contacted Springer Construction Services of Prior Lake for a bid, he wound up with free roof tiles from Kansas supplier DaVinci Roofscapes and at-cost labor from Springer.
Dutch Boy paint representatives came to the rescue last year, when the newly painted white church began peeling because of moisture problems. Its volunteers scraped off Thomas’ two-year paint job and are returning this summer to repaint.
As Thomas’ story spread, neighbors stopped by and offered support. Nearby farmers helped erect a huge donated cross in the churchyard. The American Legion of Montgomery hosted a fundraiser. Frandsen Bank & Trust in Montgomery became the depository for donations to the new St. John’s Chapel Fund.
Thomas, meanwhile, grew stronger. Last year, the feeding tube was removed from his stomach, allowing him to eat solid food for the first time in four years. He acknowledges he’s received very good medical care, but he’s not convinced that’s the only thing driving his health.
“I don’t believe my healing came from being in a hospital,” he said. “There are too many things that have happened in my life.”
On a cold December night last year, Thomas placed luminarias along the gravel driveway to the church to welcome the community to his first major open house. A new fireplace provided some warmth, and the kerosene lamps on the walls and candles on the altar emitted a gentle light.
Connie White Tupy, president of CornerStone Bank in Montgomery, was among more than 120 people who attended. She was not prepared for the wave of emotion that struck her when she entered the place. Said Tupy: “It was like taking a step back in time. It was serene.”
Thomas locked up the church for the winter after the party, waiting to reopen it until this month. He’s now launched the next phase of his work — installing insulation and repainting the white interior.
No Easter event is planned, but Thomas does not miss the significance of this holiday.
“Easter is about rebirth,” he said. “And that’s what happened to me.”