Good Shepherd new exterior (wide shot)
The exterior of the newly rebuilt Good Shepherd Episcopal Church is identical to the old one. Photo: Emilie Raguso

Nearly two years after an electrical fire destroyed much of Good Shepherd Episcopal Church in West Berkeley, the congregation will finally return to their newly rebuilt space for services this fall.

The church, on the corner of Hearst Avenue and Ninth Street, plans to open its doors on September 21 for an 11 a.m. service. Afterwards, it will host a party for the neighborhood to celebrate the new space.

On arrival, however, the churchgoers may be forgiven for thinking there was never a fire at all. The exterior of the new building is identical to the old one. According to Rev. Este Gardner Cantor, the city mandated that the new exterior match the original design since the church is considered an architectural landmark.

Interior scaffolding in rebuilt Good Shepherd church
The new interior nears completion. Photo: Rev. Este Gardner Cantor
The new interior nears completion. Photo: Rev. Este Gardner Cantor

The church’s interior and adjoining sacristy have been completely redone. In planning the inside, flexibility was key, Rev. Cantor said. Unlike the rigid layout of the old building, the new church will house a movable stage and chairs instead of pews. The remodeled sacristy behind the church ­­—which was completely destroyed in the fire— will have improved handicapped access and a view of the property’s giant sequoia.

Church leaders also decided to add a memorial garden after several members of the congregation expressed their desire to be buried at Good Shepherd. The garden will be home to the cross that sat on top of the original church’s steeple.

Funding for the rebuilding came from several sources. According to Cantor, insurance paid for much of the renovations. Church fundraisers, and support from the surrounding community, covered additional expenses.

And it was precisely this support from community that Cantor said helped sustain Good Shepherd through the difficult months of rebuilding. Immediately after the fire gutted much of the property, church leader Judy Kridle set to work negotiating contracts with insurance companies and architecture firms. During the reconstruction process, it was contractor Steve Plath and on-site contractor Frand Vieira’s “incredible skill and compassion” that helped the leadership realize its vision for the new building, Rev. Cantor said. Her praise also extended to churchgoers, who continued to worship, despite the lack of formal space to do so.

“Our congregation has been incredibly flexible. We have to create church every morning and they’ve been amazing,” Cantor said.

Operations didn’t stop when the fire tore through the property. The morning after the blaze, which happened to be a Sunday, the congregation held their service in the undamaged parish hall with supplies provided by Bishop Marc Handley Andrus, the Bishop of California..

A photo taken on Oct. 21, 2012, shortly after the Good Shepherd Church was ravaged by fire. Photo: Lisa Sibony
A photo taken on Oct. 21, 2012, shortly after the Good Shepherd Church was ravaged by fire. Photo: Lisa Sibony

For the next two years, the hall served as the congregation’s place of worship, and, although Cantor said it was somewhat plain, the space held some unforeseen perks. The hall is big and open, which has allowed church leaders to experiment with the layout of services. Instead of the traditional linear arrangement, the congregation now worships in the round, which is a circular configuration with the altar in the middle. This flexibility ultimately made its way into the church’s new design.

The incorporation of new features is one of the reasons Cantor sees the fire as an opportunity for renewal and growth.

“Even though I was sort of in shock, the first thing I said was ‘we’ve been baptized by fire and the holy spirit,’ and that this is a good thing,” she said.

The rebuilding effort also led the church to establish new ties with local groups and reaffirm old ones. Cantor hopes to see this relationship grow, a desire reflected in the new design, which will allow the church to accommodate more people and put on more concerts and classes for the community.

But to ensure that this vision becomes a reality, the Church must first put its debt to bed. Good Shepherd will be hosting its final fundraiser on Oct. 25. Starting at 5 p.m., community members are invited to come see the new church, participate in a silent auction and snack on wine and hors d’oeuvres. Musical entertainment will be provided as well.

Anyone seeking more information about the Good Shepherd church and the rebuilding process can visit the church’s website or Facebook page.

Drew Jaffe is a summer intern at Berkeleyside. He grew up in the East Bay and now attends Occidental College in Los Angeles.

Good Shepherd Church: Rebuilding, restarting after fire (06.20.13)
Fire damages Good Shepherd Episcopal Church on 9th St. (10.21.12)

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