Robert and Molly Shaffer answer questions at a presentation Tuesday in Winona Lake on the restoration of the “Old Rugged Cross Church.” Photo by Jackie Gorski, Times-Union.
Robert and Molly Shaffer answer questions at a presentation Tuesday in Winona Lake on the restoration of the “Old Rugged Cross Church.” Photo by Jackie Gorski, Times-Union.
WINONA LAKE – Robert Shaffer said he can’t answer the question of what got him and wife Molly interested in the restoration of the “Old Rugged Cross Church” in Pokagon, Mich., other than to say the couple had a desire to get it done.

“I’ve never been discouraged, 21 years. There’s days I would spend 12, 14 hours over there working by myself sometimes. My dog, my Rottweiler and I,” Robert told attendees Tuesday at Westminster Hall in Winona Lake.

He said if he had $100 for every person that told him he was wasting his time renovating the church in the early days, the Shaffers would have a fortune.

The Shaffers had a pastor in 1984 that asked if Robert would be the church historian and they inherited all the church documents related to the “Old Rugged Cross Church,” and that’s what really peaked their interest, Mary said.

Mary also said she felt renovating the church was what God wanted. She said God has a plan for the church and they’re not sure what God’s final purpose is.

The Shaffers are part of The Old Rugged Cross Foundation, which is a nonprofit group dedicated to the restoration of The Original old Rugged Cross Church, where the final version of Rev. George Bennard’s hymn “The Old Rugged Cross” was first publicly sung during a 1913 revival. Mary is the secretary-treasurer and Robert is the president of the foundation.

Mary said the church has a unique history as it was originally built in 1862 as a hops barn. The person who owned the barn sold it as the hops business wasn’t doing as well “as it seems to be doing now.”

In the 1870s, it was purchased and turned into a church. They added the last 30 feet of the church and worshipped in the church “for a good 40 years after that.” At the end of that period, the pastor of the church decided to have a revival and invited Bennard. That was where “The Old Rugged Cross” was introduced.

The next year, the church bought the Baptist church across the street and made it into a Methodist Church, abandoning the Old Rugged Church. The Old Rugged Church was sold to a farmer that turned the church into a barn.

The Shaffers bought the building in 1998, Mary said.

Mary described the state of the church when they bought it. On one side of the building, the trees had grown into the wood, rotted the wood and grown into the building. She said the tree stumps had to be left in place because it was keeping the wall in place. The roof was sagging.

“It was in serious condition,” she said. It was inhabited by raccoons. It still had hay in the building when they bought it.

Robert said most of the renovated building is original. They couldn’t save the siding. It hadn’t been painted in over 100 years. It was curled up and cracked. There was no way it could be saved. Mary said one of the walls does have some of the original siding.

“So we did put the siding back just like the original,” he said.

The roof is altered a bit, Robert said. They put Michigan white cedar down instead of Michigan red cedar.

Mary said they spent a lot of time raising money to get a good start on renovating the church and it was a couple of years before they could physically do anything to the church.

What they planned on doing was temporarily move the church to the lot next to it and build a complete basement. They would then move the church back. Mary said the plan was to have bathrooms and a furnace in the basement. Mary said that would have cost $237,000 and that’s if they could get the job done in 30 days.

It took two or three years before it was decided to not have a basement, Mary said. At that point, they raised some money. It wasn’t enough to complete the basement, “but enough where we could really take off at that point.”

Mary said once they forgot about the basement, God opened up all the doors and windows and they made progress in renovating the church “like you’d never seen before.” Mary said it was best to go with God’s plan.

Mary said the church is on the national registry of historic buildings. Being on the national level helps open up federal grants. They said they were eligible for a lot of government grants, none of which they ever got.

She was praying to get one of the grants. She was told by her contractor that if they got a government grant, it gives the government the right to tell the foundation what they can do, who can do it, etc.

“We would lose our contractor that we know was given to us by God, because then you would have to open it up then to bids from all sorts, people who knew nothing about historic restoration,” Mary said. They didn’t get the grant.

Just under 6% of money raised came from grants and none were government grants. The rest of the money came from private individuals and “we’re very happy about that,” Mary said.

Robert said they were told it would take $2 million to put the church back to the 1913 appearance. “We’re right at a million,” he said.

In 2009, the church started holding weddings and hymn sings, Mary said.

Mary said the church is not connected to any denomination and no one will profit from the church.

Robert said there is a historical marker at the church that says the Methodist church across the street acquired the “Old Rugged Cross Church.” He said that’s half true. The Shaffer’s attorney suggested they give the church to someone who had a 501(c)(3) until they could get their own. Their attorney started forming The Old Cross Foundation, which is a corporation formation.

The Shaffers originally gave the church to the Methodist church. It was a quick plan so they could raise money because people wouldn’t give them money unless they could claim the donation on their taxes.

When the foundation was formed, the Shaffers gave the church to The Old Rugged Cross Foundation, which owns the church now.