BURLINGTON, Iowa — Members of First United Methodist Church in Burlington could return to their rebuilt church this weekend, more than six years after an arson fire destroyed the historic downtown building.

The Hawk Eye newspaper reported that churchgoers toured the church Sunday for the first time since the April 2007 fire.

After the blaze, all that was left of the landmark granite church built in 1889 were the foundation and walls.

Kevin Ravelin, of Burlington, was convicted of arson for setting the fire and is serving a 35-year sentence in federal prison.

Opted to rebuild

Members considered building a new church in another part of town but decided instead to salvage what they could of the old structure and rebuild.

“I’m really excited to get back home,” church member Tim Votawhe said while touring the church. “It’s been a long time, but we’ll get used to it again.”

Heather Smith is a member of another church but sometimes attends services at First United Methodist, where her grandparents worshipped.

She said something has been missing since the destructive fire.

“I’ve lived in Burlington for 39 years. I grew up on Third Street. It’s (First United is) part of the downtown,” Smith said. “It was missing.”

Hard to say goodbye

Since the fire, First United Methodist members worshipped for most of that time at Grace United Methodist.

Although they’re eager to return to their rebuilt church, First United Rev. Mike Orthel said the final joint service was difficult.

“It was very hard to say goodbye to Grace,” said Orthel, who wasn’t First United’s pastor when the fire occurred. “They’ve been our host and our home for almost six years now. ... We’ve come to love those folks.”

If workers finish this week, the church plans a 12-hour prayer vigil before the first service Sunday morning.

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