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Flood Damage Repaired, Aging Congregation Still Faces Challenges

Chapel of the Interlude includes a tiny sanctuary (left) and a fellowship hall (right) for gatherings. Both were severely damaged by 2013 floods in Colorado.

First of a series of stories about starting over, profiling people who, by choice or circumstance, reinvented or transformed.

Chapel of the Interlude is a fitting name for a church in the middle of a narrow, winding canyon.

In 1969, benefactors built the intimate wood-paneled structure to provide an oasis next to one of the busiest roads leading to Rocky Mountain National Park.

But in 2013, a raging river between Estes Park and Loveland, Colo. deposited mud, sticks and debris inside the chapel's Fellowship Hall. After stripping down the walls and carpet to remove mold and water damage, about 40 of its members have returned, including Harry Fiechtner.

"It's a lot of work, it's a lot of strain, a lot of stress, but we just kept coming together," Fiechtner says.

Decked out in suspenders, a handlebar mustache and a beard, the 68-year-old tinkers with a new thermostat.

"You see what we've got today; it's just building right back," Fiechtner says.

The church shed its 1960s wood paneling for white walls and a tile floor. But one hurdle down, another to go. That's what it's like when you're starting over.

"We have very few young people," says Bus Tarbox, who has attended Interlude for 10 years. "We don't have any children, so we're going to have to appeal to the people who live up here. And so far we haven't been real successful in doing that."

The average age in this congregation is 75. The oldest member just turned 101.

Inside the tiny sanctuary, a sea of gray heads gathers for worship. After a technical glitch causes speaker feedback — and hearing aid distress — Pastor Dave Orrison kicks off the service.

"What are we thankful for this morning?" Orrison asks the congregation.

One churchgoer who's 90 says she's happy to finally get scheduled for an MRI.

"If they don't hurry and find out why you're sick, you might just get well first, right?" Orrison jokes.

He then starts a service he describes as gentle and "nonabrasive." Everything from Orrison's delivery to his use of traditional hymns is by design. Rock music may help fill the church pews, he says, but it can alienate those who are older.

"I think many pastors have been pushed into the idea that growth is so important that disenfranchising certain groups is acceptable," he says.

Orrison says there's a delicate balance between bringing in younger members and retaining the older ones. Plus, there are just limitations to what this older group can and will do.

"They're 90 years old," he says. "I mean, we have several of them who are 90 years old. I'm not going to encourage them to get out there and knock on doors and tell their neighbors that they need Jesus, you know?"

And there are limits to how many people Chapel of the Interlude can recruit. The new sanctuary is already cramped. With overflow seating, they're squeezing in 60 people.

After Sunday service, the congregation snacks on brownies and cookies. Liz Fiechtner, one of the youngest members at 55, says she loves the small community and from-the-heart sermons. Building up the church is about connecting with the right people.

"See, before the flood, there was a house and a lot of trees in front of the church," she says. "You never knew there was a church here."

Now Fiechtner says the house and trees are gone. Their oasis is more exposed.

"So trying to bring some of the regular traffic maybe to come here, and put it out that we're back open," she says, "that we're here again worshipping together."

Chapel of the Interlude doesn't have a whole lot of extra space. But when you're starting over, there's plenty of room for growth.

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