LAKE LILLIAN -- In what used to be the choir loft at Grace Lutheran Church, intimate tables for four are clustered under the rafters of the sloping ceiling.
Church pews have been replaced with an eclectic mix of antique tables and chairs.
And the sanctuary is now occupied by a 110-year-old wooden bar discovered at an auction in Stewart.
Owners John and Patty Nefstead have spent more than three years transforming the former church into an event center they hope will become a favorite gathering place for weddings, showers, anniversaries, reunions and other special occasions. The facility opens this coming spring.
"Hopefully people will have a good time here and it works out," John Nefstead said. "We'd love to have people call and go through the building."
It all started in the fall of 2007 when the Nefsteads saw an auction notice for the church building. A dwindling congregation had led Grace Lutheran Church to merge with Lake Lillian's other Lutheran church, close its doors and put the building up for sale.
The Nefsteads were intrigued. John Nefstead, a woodworking aficionado who learned how to make furniture on a table saw in the family basement, was especially interested in the possibilities presented by an old church building. He walked through the church the night of the auction, placed a bid and the building, along with a parking lot, was theirs.
Over the past three years the couple has spent countless hours cleaning, painting and furnishing the former church.
All the fixtures, from the pews and the organ to the stained-glass windows, were removed and sold when the church closed. But the building itself, a brick structure dating to 1947 -- a classroom and office wing was added in the early 1960s -- was sound and well-maintained, and needed virtually no major repairs.
"This building has really, really good bones," John said. "We had to do very little with it."
From the choir loft and the sanctuary to the tiny closet behind the vestry where communion wine used to be stored, the Nefsteads kept the original rambling floor plan.
The timber roof beams and oak floors of the main church have been preserved. "That's the part we really loved," John said.
With blue-gray and cream-colored paint and the addition of softly lit wall sconces, they've turned the main floor and choir loft into a dining area that comfortably seats 120.
Downstairs in the church's former social hall, there's room for another 90 guests, plus a kitchen for caterers.
Furnishing the building's 9,500 square feet was like a treasure hunt, Patty said.
"We started going to garage sales, auctions, antique shops, Goodwills, secondhand shops," she said. "We probably have every style of furniture you could possibly have. It's pretty eclectic. That was the fun part of this."
Behind many of their acquisitions lies a story. The antique bar, for instance, was purchased at an auction in Stewart the spring after the Nefsteads bought the church.
"We had to take it in here in pieces," John recalled.
It took most of the summer to restore it to its former glory, he said.
For the main dining area, they tracked down the purchaser of the church's original hanging light fixtures, bought them back and had them reinstalled.
A pair of upright black chairs upholstered in ivory was discovered at a yard sale. Other chairs were donated by a friend of Patty's who was downsizing and wanted her furniture to go to a good home.
John called on his woodworking skills to build and restore cabinetry and furnishings. To craft a set of built-in cabinets up in the loft, he salvaged some subflooring that originally came from the Lake Lillian lumberyard and still bears the lumberyard's stamp.
They've financed the entire project themselves. "Everything that's been done is paid for," Patty said.
The project has been a chance for the Nefsteads to reconnect with their southwestern Minnesota roots. John was raised in Marshall and Patty grew up in Tracy, but they lived in the metro area for many years, where Patty was with the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation and John was a teacher and school superintendent and later worked at Northland Securities. Now retired, the couple has been living in rural Willmar for nine years and has two daughters, two sons-in-law and four grandsons living in Jordan.
Just this weekend the couple came up with a name for their enterprise: the Kermit Burton Big House. The name is a nod to their golden retriever, Willy, whose full name is Willy Russell Kermit Burton, after the Nefsteads' parents.
They plan to start marketing it locally in upcoming months before it officially opens in May.
There have already been some sneak previews of the facility. This fall the event center hosted a shower and a Bible play. The Nefsteads also have given several tours for Lake Lillian residents curious about what's happening to one of the city's landmark buildings.
The couple has been buoyed by the reaction so far.
When Patty ushered a group through the former church a couple of weeks ago, "they just loved it," she said. "I think you can take any building and give it a whole new life."
Contact the Nefsteads at firstname.lastname@example.org, 320-599-8080 or 320-979-9336.