Birmingham firms collaborate to build new church at mass shooting site - Mass Shooting News

Birmingham firms collaborate to build new church at mass shooting site


Evil did not win.

Those words are carved on the cornerstone of the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, Texas, which last month dedicated a new sanctuary near the site where the worst mass shooting in an American house of worship occurred. And the new building is the product of several Alabama firms that donated time and talent to give the congregation a new home.

Michael O’Kelley, the Birmingham architect who designed the new church, had already designed churches, custom residential homes, and more than two million square feet of retail projects before he got the call.

“I knew this is the kind of project that would stick with me for a while,” he said.

On Sunday morning, Nov. 5, 2017, a man walked into the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, Texas during the 11 a.m. service. He had already shot two people outside the church when he entered through a side door, and fired more than 700 bullets over 10 minutes. Leaving the church, he was shot twice by a local resident before he fled in his vehicle and later took his own life.

He killed 26 people, including an unborn baby, and wounded 20.

The new church can hold more than 250 worshippers, with a corner tower using a bell from the original sanctuary. On the backside of the building is a windowed tower, to act as a beacon to the community.

The North American Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention stepped in to fund construction of a new sanctuary, with gifts made through donations and the Southern Baptist Cooperative Program. The NAMB opted for Birmingham’s Myrick, Gurosky & Associates to lead the construction. O’Kelley, who was just about to start his own architectural firm, had already done work with Scott Gurosky’s Vestavia Hills firm.

Gurosky said he’s been involved in more than 300 church construction jobs. Typically at the beginning of a project, he sits down with a committee to go over their particular parameters for the church design. The shooting had happened less than 90 days before, he said.

At Sutherland Springs, that first meeting involved only the pastor, Frank Pomeroy, and one other person. Pomeroy was in another state the day of the shooting.

“Everybody else was dead, all their leadership was killed. They were starting over,” Gurosky said.

The church leadership wanted a new building, “the sooner the better.” O’Kelley said after his first trip to Texas, he met with other officials who made suggestions for the number of seats, the types of spaces needed. A new worship center, education space, kitchen and fellowship hall were requested. The church was able to purchase an adjoining piece of property for the new sanctuary. The decision was made to preserve the old sanctuary as a memorial. Both Gurosky and O’Kelley walked through it.

Folding chairs were left for the victims in the spaces they occupied at the moment of the shooting, with their names on each one. “You can still see the scars in the building,” Gurosky said. “I’ve never seen anybody leave there without being emotionally shook.”

It took 14 months to build the new church, which was dedicated in May.

Sutherland Springs lies about 30 miles south of San Antonio, in Wilson County, one of the poorest in Texas. The area only has one flashing traffic light, with neighboring communities feeding into the church. What O’Kelly began designing, on the plane ride back home, would easily be the most prominent building for miles.

The new church can hold more than 250 worshippers, with a corner tower using a bell from the original sanctuary. At the base of the bell tower is a memorial room to the victims, designed by Birmingham designer Ivy Schuster of Hatcher Schuster Interiors. One family lost nine members from three generations, Gurosky said.

On the backside of the building is a windowed tower, to act as a beacon to the community.

“In general, we tried to create a building that was very durable, with filled concrete block and hard durable structure,” O’Kelley said.

Usually when a design is ready to be presented to the church, there are questions about wall colors, aesthetic choices, what materials are being used. Sutherland Springs was different, Gurosky said.

“The questions were, ‘How do we get out of the building?’” he said. “They had people making threats, even then.”

While some security features are being kept quiet, O’Kelley said the design limits lines of sight. Windows don’t start until about six feet from the ground. There is a good deal of internal visibility for worshippers, with a layout that takes internal security into account. Cameras are used throughout.

Fourteen months later, the new church was dedicated with survivors, Southern Baptist Convention President J.D. Greear and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott. In all, Gurosky said dozens of companies donated more than $1.5 million in services and material to the project.

“It was a phenomenal job to be a part of,” he said.



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