Building Unity: Rhinelander's Nativity of Our Lord Parish ready for major renovation projectSubmitted: 03/23/2017

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RHINELANDER - Father Randy Knauf thought about history as he walked the aisles of a church he once went to as a boy, knowing soon this church down to the very pew he once sat in... Will completely change.

"It's a 'starting again,'" Knauf said.

Knauf took over as pastor at Nativity of Our Lord Parish in Rhinelander last year. He's helped lead a multi-million dollar redesign of St. Mary's church's 55-year-old worship space.

"We expect to be a little tight this summer, but it's worth it in the long run," Knauf said.

The plans help combine Nativity's cross-town churches, which includes the north campus St. Joseph's church on Stevens Street, into one. Starting in June, crews will renovate basically everything within the existing shell.

The church will add bathrooms and storage space, redo the heating and install air conditioning, and create a handicapped-accessible gathering space inside the main entrance by removing the choir loft. The project includes a new multi-purpose room along King Street, a new classroom, and new roofs for the buildings.

According to documents Nativity filed with the city, existing worship space has room for up to 900 people.  The renovated church will allow for only about 615 people, which will create a more intimate church experience.

"Kind of making it easier for people to be here and participate in the services," Knauf said. "The social part of being church is something that, in the early 1960s, they weren't necessarily building for."

The parish hoped to renovate more than a decade ago, initially planning to build an entirely new church and school. But the church couldn't raise enough money for such a large project.

Church member and project manager Mary Dahl can happily say that's changed.

"We definitely are blessed," Dahl said.

Parishioner donations over 12 years and a $1 million grant from the Cleary Foundation can now cover the $3.6 million build.

For Dahl, this is the perfect time to start again, given the nearby downtown Rhinelander Streetscape project, which redid 21 city blocks.

"To renovate this church in the proximity of the downtown really just kind of helps as far as showing the revitalization that's happening in the community," Dahl said.

Knauf says the church can draw upwards of 1,000 parishioners during most services. But Father Knauf says they're not a particularly wealthy church. That makes the millions collected all the more impressive.

"It's amazing how many people have donated to the project and, just, again, the wonderful support that we've received from everyone here," Dahl said.

Father Knauf has the faith this new start will unite members past, present, and future.

"Finally, after 12 years of the merging of the parishes, finally a new home for everybody," Knauf said.

Nativity cleared one of the last hurdles before starting the project Wednesday night. The Rhinelander Plan Commission approved its conditional use permit. That now goes to the full city council for final approval.

The entire project should be done in time for Easter in March 2018.

Story By: Lane Kimble

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