Former Baer’s to become church, event center
Published 11:15 am Monday, November 22, 2021
By SCOTT MIMS | Special to the Reporter
CALERA – A beloved Calera landmark—the former location of Baer’s Department Store—has been purchased and renovated by Collectivus Church and will serve as both the church’s new home as well as a community center and event center.
A grand opening and ribbon cutting is planned for Sunday, Dec. 5 at the historic downtown location, to be held in conjunction with the 9 a.m. and 10:45 a.m. worship services. The event is open to everyone and is the culmination of more than 1,200 hours of volunteer hours spent restoring the property, which had sat vacant for longer than a decade.
Collectivus Church Pastor Ben Nelson indicated that the goal was to both preserve the integrity of the structure and to re-purpose it to make way for the future.
“We are in the business of restoring things. What we’ve been able to come together and do with the old Baer’s property is actually symbolic of the restoration we see in our city in general,” Nelson said. “All too often, in our county, we bulldoze all the old things to make way and build new things, but I think there’s something beautiful about bringing an old building back to life.”
Upon walking inside, one will notice the exposed Chicago-style bricks as well as the barn-style doors leading out of the worship center, the latter of which were crafted from wood that was part of the building’s original flooring. Those materials are juxtaposed with modern lighting controlled by iPads, movable seating and roll-down doors that can expand or divide a room into different-size spaces as needed.
The building can easily serve as a metaphor for how Collectivus—which takes its name from the Latin word for “collective”—approaches church, which is based on the formation of the early Church in the biblical book of Acts.
“We look at their heart and what was started and say, ‘What does that look like in modern times?’” Nelson said. “We say we want to be a church that helps restore our community, and why not help restore a building in the same process?”
Collectivus’s story goes back to just before the COVID-19 pandemic hit the U.S. in February 2020. What would become the church consisted of several members of a Bible study meeting at a home. The group, which drew a significant number of unchurched people, started to grow and eventually moved to the Alabaster Restore building.
The decision to plant a church was not a far reach for Nelson and his wife, Cassidy, who are known for their missional living and have helped start non-profits, missional organizations, planted churches, new worship services, re-launched churches successfully, and have cultivated “Missional Communities” that reflect the heart of the early church. Nelson has also headed up an organization that plants churches in eastern Europe.
Still, Nelson at first questioned the idea of planting a church locally: “We weren’t going to be a church; we were just literally a Bible study,” he admitted. “Sixty people were at this house, and I was like, ‘That’s a lot of people for a Bible study.’ And then it grew very quickly, and again we were there for I think four weeks. When we moved to the Restore building we broke 100 pretty quickly.”
As part of its official launch, Collectivus moved into Calera Intermediate School but had to figure out a new way to do church when the pandemic hit. During this time, the church met via Facebook and increased its online presence. Soon thereafter, a city official contacted Nelson about the possibility of using a downtown space.
“I came to this building and looked at it and instantly, even in the state it was in, I knew that it could be something,” he said.
Baer’s Department Store first opened in 1898 and was a fixture of Calera for more than 100 years. However, since the beloved store’s closing in the 2000s, the building was used as a storage space and saw no life within its walls for longer than a decade.
When the opportunity presented itself for the church to purchase the property, they started a massive renovation/restoration project. They took out the shelving and the drop-down ceiling, removed the drywall and exposed the original brick walls. Brandon Price headed up a crew of volunteers and also did much of the labor, according to Nelson.
“Ninety percent of the work was done by volunteers, and almost 100 percent of those volunteers were a part of our church,” Nelson said.
The building’s restoration has been emotionally moving to many who were familiar with the space in its heyday. During the renovation process, several “treasures” were found, including Mr. Baer’s hat, company ledgers, an old roll of wrapping paper on an old-fashioned roller, an antique price gun and jars of old product.
“People still come to me and tell me stories about when they were in high school and they would go buy their school outfits there, or they would buy their work clothes there,” said Calera Main Street Director Jackie Batson, also a church member. “People know that property, and they have such fond memories of shopping there throughout their lives, and so the interior of that property has blessed so many people years ago, and I look forward to the hundreds of lives that it will bless moving forward as a church and event center.”
Alan Broadhead, a local realtor, is one of those people. Broadhead called the store’s third generation owner, Phil Baer, a “servant to the people” and said that he and Nelson were “cut from the same cloth” and that it was fitting that Collectivus is now occupying the same space.
“I shopped there as a kid. My mom would buy me shoes,” Broadhead recalled, sharing that when his mother passed away, he came home and talked to Mr. Baer and purchased about $200 worth of clothing but was surprised to find that Baer charged him only $45.
“I always considered Phil to be one of the crown jewels of Calera. He was just a great guy,” he added.
Collectivus held its first worship service in the new location on Oct. 24, 2021. The building will serve as the church’s primary meeting place on Sundays. On the other six days of the week, it will be available for community events or as a private event venue for parties, weddings, corporate functions and more. Rental fees will go toward helping the community center thrive.
The next step is to paint and fix up the storefront in time for the official grand opening Dec. 5.
“This is a major stepping stone to the revitalization of this entire area,” Batson said. “This is a huge, important property for what it used to be and for what it’s going to be, and in a different way from a retail place or a restaurant or even an entertainment venue. It’s different in how it touches the community and gives back to the community and is a gathering place for the community in a variety of ways. It’s great because we’re all about building community.”
Collectivus Church meets on Sundays at 9 a.m. and 10:45 a.m. at 8271 Hwy. 31 in Calera and at 10 a.m. on Facebook Live. For more information and updates, visit Collectivus.church or @collectivuschurch on Instagram and Facebook.