MORRIS – Don’t expect the old movie theater seats, popcorn counter and sticky floors the next time you step into the old downtown Morris movie theater.
The building has been remodeled in a four-month blitz by the Living Water Church of the Nazarene, which held its first service in the space Sunday.
“It’s everything I expected,” Living Water Rev. Steve Cook said after service Sunday. “I think we succeeded in creating a space that people would be comfortable in and also would have that reverence that they could come to know God in.”
The idea of holding services in the building is not new: My Father’s House of Prayer had owned the building and used it for its church for a few years, but the seats and sloping floor down to the movie screen stage remained. Cook said his church bought the building in June.
Living Water started in 2008 in Morris. Cook was brought in as reverend, and the congregation met at the high school. It moved to the Christian Youth Center building in CanalPort Plaza in October 2009, then four years to the day after that, the last service was held there.
Although the congregation plans on more remodeling, the worship center is finished, as is the nursery. Some remodeling work remains in the kitchen/meeting area, and a pastor’s office has been created beside the stage area, and restrooms will be remodeled in the next phase.
The renovations have created a contemporary worship area, but the church left the foyer with the original 1930 design that includes crown moldings, a hanging lamp and the rippled walls and the inner wooden doors.
The ticket booth has been bought by a downstate couple for their private in-home theater. The nostalgic marquee will remain, although it will be updated a bit.
“Our vision was to convert it to a modern sanctuary and still keep the 1930s feel to the lobby,” church member and professional construction manager Ken Medows said. “The crown molding is all original from 1930 ... and so are the light fixtures. But when you hit the sanctuary, it is no longer 1930.”
Medows said a wonderful find was the signatures of several actors who once performed at the Morris theatre. One of them being child actor Billie Thomas, better known as Buckwheat from the 1930s and ’40s TV show “Our Gang.” He was 15 when he came to Morris to perform at the theater. Church members intend to turn pictures of the signatures into plaques that will be given to the Grundy County Historical Museum.
The floor of the worship center, which was the main theater room, was leveled and carpeted and the stage was raised. A baptismal was installed underneath the stage and can be raised up for baptisms. The movie screen remains but is rolled up into the ceiling and can be lowered for movies or, as was the case Sunday after church, NFL football games.
Medows said it was a great surprise that a building so perfect for the church came on the market.
“We weren’t really looking to buy anything,” he said. “But the Lord just kept leading us, and it worked for both of us.”
Church members Chris and Jill Edwards of Braidwood said they love the new space.
“There’s so much more space than we had in our old building,” Jill Edwards said. “There’s room to spread out.”
“There’s room to grow,” Chris Edwards added. “The other building was not ours, but this is, and it’s a blessing to have our own building. It’s amazing. It truly is a gift from God.”
Church member Anna Valentine said she loves the new place.
“It’s a lot easier now that we don’t have to keep moving everything,” she said. “I like it a lot. It’s cozy and warm. It’s very homey.”
Anna’s mother, Kelly Valentine, said it was the result of prayers coming true. It was her teenage son Sean who led her and the family to church in the first place a few years ago. Sean Valentine attended the Christian Youth Center and was saved there, and Kelly Valentine’s friend Gini Heath invited the family to Living Water.
“We wanted to find a church so we could walk this walk with him,” Kelly Valentine said. “Pastor Steve is a wonderful person, and the people are just wonderful, too. God has really led us on this journey.”
Soon after, Sean Valentine died a sudden death. Kelly Valentine said she was glad the family had found a strong church home by that time.
“Without this church family I would have had even more of a struggle getting over Sean passing,” she said. “God knew I would need a good church family.”
Kelly Valentine said it was exciting to attend the first service in the new building Sunday.
“We’re excited to be here in the heart of the community,” Kelly Valentine said. “We want to be an approachable church.”
Rev. Cook echoed her sentiments, noting the church purposely was kept open during Cruise Nights and other downtown Morris events during construction so people could stop by and see the progress.
“It was fun hearing their stories about the old theater,” Cook said. “There was a lot of history that they told us. Our plan is to really be part of the downtown area. We want to be open during downtown events. I think it’s an exciting area to be part of.”
Cook said the church would continue the tradition of showing movies in the space. There will be children’s movies shown there during Home for the Holidays, as well as “Polar Express” during the Christmas season.