That 1896 community landmark has been reawakened and will enjoy a bright future as a multi-purpose space thanks to joint funding and refurbishment efforts. Rainier Mayor Robert Shaw says now-retired City Clerk-Treasurer Charmayne Garrison sparked the city’s effort to restore the facility. He says it was a City Council and staff decision to move that project forward a few years ago. He adds that when he walked into the building years ago, he saw that a lot of work was necessary. “The process took a while,” he says. “Money was needed, and we didn’t have enough funds. We were putting resources together and getting grants.”
Although the historical church’s remodel slowed a bit during COVID-19, the lovely, white-painted wood frame building located at 207 Olympia Street W on the corner of Minnesota Street N is now ready for its next chapter. That’s fitting, as the City of Rainier is in the Tenalquot, or ten al quelth prairies, which is means “the best yet” in Lushootseed.
“We just really appreciate all the support the city has had in getting this renovation up and running and to get it finished,” says Shaw. “The church had sat, and nothing had happened to it for years.”
“It’s beautiful now,” he adds, noting that the completion of the extensive work meant the City could hold a ribbon-cutting and reopening ceremony at the church March 15. “We get tons of comments. People come down Minnesota at night and the church is all lit up. It’s really nice to see.”
The remodel project was supported by the Rainier City Council and its staff, Port of Olympia’s Small Cities Program, Thurston County Heritage Grant Program, the Rainier Historical Society and others. While retaining the historical ambience of the church, the renovation over the last couple of years provided multiple indoor and outdoor improvements, including to the septic system, water lines, bathroom, pews, exterior siding, paint, windows, electrical system, security, flooring, sprinkler system, fencing, lawn, rose bushes and other refurbishments.
And the effort has paid off. The church is reborn.
Before heading into the white wooden-shingled church, you first step through an arbor at the front entry gate, which is part of a distinctive picket fence surrounding the building. Then you pass the new rose bushes next to the sidewalk, and enter into the gabled vestibule under the belfry tower. As you walk inside, you will see light pouring in through the large double-pane windows, shining on the refurbished wooden pews. An altar area and wooden pulpit up front face the pews, with a brown door labeled “pastor” on the side that leads to a small room behind the pulpit.
Brothers Albert, Theodore and Paul Gehrke built the structure and it was used as a pioneer house of worship and a school. The building was listed on the Washington State Heritage Register in 2007. The State Heritage Register catalogs historically significant properties. Register documents submitted in 1985 recap the facility’s history. “Albert Gehrke, a German immigrant, came to Rainier in 1890 to homestead a 170 acre claim, including much of present-day Rainier, named for its view of the mountain,” the documents describe. “Gehrke, a farmer and former cabinet maker, was joined in Rainier by his two brothers. Together with his brothers and neighbors, Gehrke built the school in 1896. The one-room structure was the first schoolhouse in the community, serving students in grades one through eight.”
The documents memorialize what happened next: “In 1902, the school moved to a new structure and the building was purchased by the Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church, of which the Gehrkes and much of the town’s German community were members. Although organized in 1893, the congregation had met in member[s’] homes until the purchase of the school. Early services in the new church were conducted in German and the church served as a community center for the German population of Rainier. It even served an educational role again. When the new school house burned in 1915, classes returned to the church building until a new school was built.”
Over the ensuing years, the building continued to be used as a church, and it saw additions such as the steeple and a sanctuary. As the structure aged, however, its use dwindled. The City purchased it in 1995 and completed the remodel in 2022.