In rebuilding a church, cancer patient rebuilt his health

Cancer patient Greg Thomas credits his work to renovate a little historic church with getting his health back on track.

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.

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