PILGER — On the verge of St. John Lutheran Church's 100th anniversary, only the bell tower remains.
Floor tiles still lay on the ground from where the church previously stood, but last Monday’s two tornadoes took the rest.
Except for the bell.
With tools clanking in the background and payloaders hauling material, the bell rang eight times to signal the beginning of Sunday's 1 p.m. worship service.
More than 100 residents took a break from cleaning up the town and gathered under two tents set up next to the bell tower. They passed out dusty hymnals salvaged from the wreckage and sang the music without any instrumental help.
The construction noise in the background was loud, so the Rev. Terry Makelin, the pastor of the church since last August, had to whistle to get the congregation's attention at the beginning of the service.
Makelin started his sermon off with a light touch.
"If anyone happens to find a church," he said. "Let me know because it's mine."
But then Makelin shared a message that he said the Pilger residents needed to hear.
"As bad as this is, it still pales in comparison to the glory of Jesus Christ," Makelin said. "God is saying, ‘I got this. Don't worry. This is just a disaster.’ He has got it under control."
Lizabeth Raabe, who grew up in Pilger and now lives in Omaha, said the sermon’s message was perfect, but being at the grounds where the church previously stood was a bit surreal.
"To take communion where I was confirmed and baptized was hard but beautiful," Raabe said. "It's hard knowing I'll never get married in the church I grew up in."
Raabe, who wore Pilger's "Too tough to die" shirt, has been volunteering here since Monday night. She said the worship service was a nice break from all the work.
Donnette Van Pelt of Central City used to attend service at St. John's because her brother, Dave Ohlman, was the pastor for eight years.
"I have so many memories in this church and the park and the town," Van Pelt said. "It's just really shocking to see the extent of the damage."
Van Pelt brought her family to the town Sunday to see if they could make a dent in all of the work that needs to be done.
Makelin, who was ordained in 2010, said his job as the congregation’s pastor goes beyond the manual volunteer work that is needed. He is there for people spiritually.
"I am a first responder for spiritual care," Makelin said. "My ministry is where the people are."
Earlier in the day, the congregation met at First Trinity Lutheran Church in nearby Altona for the first time since the tornadoes struck. It was an informational meeting that discussed plans for the future of the Pilger church. The two congregations are part of a dual parish.
Makelin said in the short term, services will be held at First Trinity in Wisner and at the former church site in Pilger. In the long term, he and the congregation will rebuild the church.
"God will provide," Makelin said. "He did before, and he will again. He's going to make good come out of all of this."
Makelin said he, his congregation and surrounding Lutheran churches will be working on the church and the town until the job is finished.
"We're going to rebuild," he said, "until the grass is grown, the trees are tall and people are walking in and out of their homes like this was a distant memory."