When First United Methodist Church closed its sanctuary for renovation in 2019, the Rev. Brady Whitton wondered what congregants would say upon seeing the finished product.

It turned out, no words were used. Or needed.

“When we first opened the doors, we had members of the congregation come into the space and just start to cry,” Whitton said. “It was really moving just to stand with them.

“We’d been part of the project from the start, so we saw bits and pieces come in. But they walked in and hadn’t seen any of it and just started weeping. There’s something about this space. It’s always been a grand space. It’s grander.”

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Though the sanctuary has been complete for over a year, the COVID-19 shutdown delayed plans to hold a dedication event, and Hurricane Ida forced another postponement of the planned Aug. 29 celebration. The roughly $5 million renovation of the nearly century-old building was designed to improve the worship experience and make the sanctuary more accessible.

The most obvious new feature, both visually and audibly, is the pipe organ, which replaces one that had been installed in 1972. At its best, the old organ never had a sound that adequately supported congregational or choral singing, said Lamar Drummonds, executive director of sanctuary music and worship. As age took its toll on the instrument, repairing it wouldn’t have been worth the cost, Drummonds said.

The church chose a Quebec organ company, Casavant Freres, for the 57-rank, 3,334-pipe organ that produces a sound that undergirds rather than overwhelms singing, which is a vital part of First Methodist’s worship, Drummonds said.

“It feels like it’s coming around you and you’re singing with it,” Whitton said.

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The old organ’s pipes were concealed, but many of the new pipes are exposed behind the choir loft in a way that fits so well with the sanctuary’s design that even people who had been in the sanctuary before have asked if they were always there, Whitton said. The old pipes had been hidden by brown wood paneling that dominated the chancel background except for a metal cross.

“It’s fair to say this is one of the premier organs in Louisiana, in the South” Whitton said. “The combination of the room and the organ is special.”

A new, more ornate cross, now hangs from the ceiling over the chancel area, which has been raised to provide better viewing from the balcony. Gone is the large wooden railing that separated the choir from the rest of the altar area, and the chancel flooring is of a lighter hue, making the area less monochromatic.

A Wisconsin acoustical firm, Riedel and Associates, made numerous changes, including removing carpet in the nave. The original wood flooring was refinished and old tile replaced by a checkerboard pattern of cork flooring. New, more decorative light fixtures, like the cross, were designed by North Carolina liturgical designer Terry Byrd Eason. A new sound system from DSH Audio Visions of Milwaukee was installed, as was wireless access to connect those with hearing aids to the sound system.

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The biggest accessibility issue for those with limited mobility was getting into the sanctuary itself, which meant climbing stairs from all of the nearby doors or accessing a ramp that required a long, circuitous journey.

The answer is an elevator ride that goes only a few feet but provides quick access to the sanctuary level from the T.J. Jemison Boulevard entrance. It was one of the renovation’s most important aspects, said Phil Preis, Renovation Committee chairperson.

Although expensive, the renovation was designed to enhance the church’s worship, which is where it raises money to fund roughly $500,000 annually in community mission work, Whitton said.

“I told the congregation if all we do is come here and enjoy this space, then we have wasted our money,” Whitton said. “But if we go from this space and share the love of Christ in this community like we’re called to, then it’s worth every penny.”

Email George Morris at gmorris@theadvocate.com.