MONTGOMERY, Minn. - At various times in our lives many of us find ourselves searching.
That time came three years ago for Greg Thomas. "When I found out that I had cancer, they told my family to go ahead and start planning my funeral."
Diagnosed with stage 4 head and neck cancer at the age of 57, then let go from his propane delivery job, Thomas began passing the hours on long walks from his home alone with his dog and his thoughts.
"It's a nightmare you can't wake up out of," he recalls.
Then the daily walks down a gravel road led him to the wood-framed country church that would change his life.
Though Thomas would have loved to go inside, the doors on the old Catholic church were locked tight.
Thomas wanted desperately to go inside. "I tried it more than once," he says. But the church was always locked.
Built in 1868 by Czech settlers who later moved to a bigger parish in Montgomery, the Budejovice Church had not been home to a congregation in more than a century.
The foundation was crumbling, the paint peeling, but it was there on the church steps, a man crumbling himself came to pray.
Then one day the stranger on the steps walked next door.
"He went to the neighbor and said he wanted to paint the church, and who does he talk to, so the neighbor sent him to talk to me," is the way Don Rynda recollects his first meeting with Thomas.
As treasurer of the foundation that keeps up the church cemetery, Rynda could barely believe it.
Before Thomas climbed a ladder and went to work, Rynda had feared the church's days might be numbered. "It was a godsend, yes," says Rynda.
Onehundred and fortyyears worth of paint - 15 layers thick in places - came peeling off as Thomas worked through the lingering effects of radiation and chemotherapy that robbed him of his energy, his saliva glands and his teeth.
"I've been on a feeding tube now for three years," says Thomas, lifting his shirt, "and this is how I feed myself."
Before Thomas started painting, he asked for a key to the locked church. That too ishow Thomas now feeds himself - spiritually.
"That was the first thing I wanted to try when I walked in here is to see if the bell still worked," he says, reaching for the rope. "It still does."
Inside, Thomas found intact an 1860s interior, complete with wooden pews and Christian statuary - a dust covered museum in need of his care.
"We desperately need a roof," says Thomas, pointing out rotted wood in both the ceiling and floor.
He looks past both, for a minute and imagines the possibilities. "It's going to be beautiful."
A transplant to the area, Thomas has no family ties to the church but to those who do, he's been a blessing - heaven sent.
"One of the beads on my rosary is reserved for him," smiles Blanche Zellmer, who has lived near the church for more than 90 years.
For those like Blanche Zellmer, who believe in the power of prayer, this next part will come as no shock: the old church is newly clothed in white and Greg's cancer is now in remission.
Rynda believes something larger than the church itself is at work. "You can't help but not think otherwise."
Tears come as Thomas pauses to consider what has transpired since his diagnosis. "It's what he's done for me," he says, glance toward a statue of Jesus, "and this is my way of saying thank you."
Once the exterior painting is finished, Thomas has plans for the leaky roof, and then the church's interior.
He can pray inside now whenever he wants but there's something about the concrete pew in front of the church doors.
"There's been a lot of tears shed on these steps and they've been tears of joy, tears of pain, but tears of blessings too," says Thomas, as he wipes away new tears.
Greg Thomas is restoring the old church, that's true. But it's hard to discern who's saving who.
NOTE: Greg Thomas has set up a fund at a local bank to help cover the costs of the needed roof repair and the interior work he's planning for the church.
Donations can be sent to:
St. John's Chapel Fundraiser
Frandsen Bank & Trust
125 1st Street South
Montgomery, MN 56069