NEW MINDEN — A week after a powerful tornado tore through this tiny village north of Interstate 64, ripping the roof off St. John's Lutheran Church, the faithful gathered on a bitterly cold morning in the basement of a nearby church schoolhouse.
The previous seven days had been grim and exhausting, uncertain and anxious for residents of New Minden, a town of 250 about 45 miles east of Belleville.
The 150-year-old church, located a 100 yards away, looked like a bombed-out hulk. A plastic sheet covered where the roof once was, while wooden boards covered missing windows. Yellow tape encircled most of the church exterior, keeping the public at bay.
But the events of the past week didn't seem to faze church members, a congregation of hardy farm families used to hard work and hard times.
The mood Sunday in the former schoolhouse that is home to the church Sunday school was upbeat, buoyant even, as congregants greeted one another with hugs and smiles.
Midway through Sunday's service, the Rev. Tim Mueller, the church pastor, called the church's younger kids to gather around him. Next to Mueller stood the beaten and battered cross that had been blown off the church steeple.
For years the children had eyed the cross located up high, Mueller said.
"Well, you can touch it today," he said. "It's made out of metal. You can see from the tip some birds have been there."
The minister paused a beat. "What does it remind us of?" he asked.
"Jesus," a small voice answered.
"Jesus," Mueller repeated. "And he died on the cross for us."
During his sermon later in the service, Mueller referred to eyewitnesses who said the tornado veered at the last moment away from the village's center toward its north end, where the church is located.
"As my son Jacob said, 'Dad, God was looking down on those families in the main part of the village and He said, 'I'm not going to hit those homes. I'll take the hit in my house instead,'" Mueller said. "That's a reminder of how God works....He'll take the hit so you can go free."
Until the tornado hit, Vera Miller lived in a house across the street from St. John's with her husband and 102-year-old mother, Lauretta Weihe.
When Miller heard the warning sirens go off the second time, she hustled her mother into the basement, Miller said.
En route to the basement, she looked out the window at the approaching onslaught.
"I saw a wall," she said. "I didn't see a funnel. There was no funnel. It wasn't real dark, but it was very bluish, and the sky behind it was clear...I knew I didn't have time to watch it."
In the basement, "We heard a lot of snack, crackle and pop," Miller said. "And then the chimney broke off with a loud crack."
Mueller helped keep the mood light when Dave Spencer, who's overseeing the restoration effort, revealed the church's 106-year-old organ was destroyed when tons of stone and wood fell on it.
"It was stoned," Mueller joked, provoking laughter across the room.
The church's property insurance policy will cover the $800,000 or so it will cost to repair the church, a job that will likely last until next summer, according to Mueller.
Spencer, a supervisor with Universal Restoration Services, located in suburban Chicago, said he was amazed at the unity that he and his work crew has found among New Minden's residents.
"It's been unbelievable," Spencer said. "I've never experienced a town that's pulled together as New Minden has. From people donating food, they're cooking for us, having us down for lunches and dinners."
Spencer said he's traveled all over the country, working on projects in the aftermath of hurricanes Katrina in the Gulf Coast and Hurricane Sandy in the New York City area.
"And I've never had a group of people band together, and get something done, as this town has," he said.
Plenty of work remains ahead, though the full scope of recovery for the town and the church still are unclear, Spencer said.
"The church is a broken leg, and we've wrapped it with a couple Band-Aids right now," he said. "We don't know what the full scope of work has to be simply because we don't know where all the damage is yet."