KNOXVILLE — Colorful mosaics and stain glass are slowly brightening up the sanctuary at St. George Greek Orthodox Church.
It's been more than three years since the church suffered a devastating fire on their Easter Sunday. The 2015 blaze damaged almost the entirety of their sanctuary space.
The church's sanctuary caught fire on April 12, 2015, on Greek Orthodox Easter. The fire gutted the main worship building of the church and caused $5 million in damage.
For congregation members like Greg Tampas, it was difficult to see their place of worship destroyed.
"It was very emotional for me. My father and grandfather were founding members of the church, and to come in here and see that state..." Tampas said.
When Tampas saw the wreckage that morning, he knew there was a long journey ahead.
"This was a total gut. The only thing that was left was the concrete block and exterior brick,"Tampas described. "We took it down to the bare bones -- no plaster, stain glass, nothing."
Since then, the building team has worked hand-in-hand with a crew from Italy to restore the sanctuary.
The original mosaic artist, Tinelli, who crafted the mosaic pieces that were put in the church during the 60s and 70s, is once again working on the new pieces that will adorn the sanctuary.
Handmade in Italy, the materials are shipped in heavy crates and installed in the church bit by bit.
In the last year alone, the white walls and empty windows have slowly come to life with color.
"I think it's really exciting, the transformation is a big thing. You get it all cleaned up, that was step one, and it looked a lot better, but now when you see the windows back in, mosaics up... you think it's really coming back together. We got an end in sight, this is going to happen," treasurer Bryan Johnson said.
So far, the Virgin Mary mosaic has been installed on the back wall, along with four Apostles: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John below the dome. Those works alone took 45 days for one piece.
It's a tedious, time consuming job.
"Mosaic work, tile work... there's lots of detail in that you can't rush along," Johnson explained.
The artists create a rendering of the mosaic, cut the pieces and ship them to the church. Once there, workers put together the mosaic piece by piece.
The congregation has put in its own hours of elbow grease. Tampas, Johnson and other members have spent their Saturdays and spare time sanding and polishing large brass lanterns that survived the fire.
"They were tarnished. The wiring was melted down," Tampas described. "One day down the road, I can look at these lanterns and know this group of guys put those together, and there is a sense of pride we did that work."
Church members have missed special moments inside their special space like baptisms, weddings and holidays. These are traditions they are ready to celebrate once again in the sanctuary.
"We have lots of young children here. I have a daughter who was five when we left, and they don't really remember being in church," Johnson explained. "It's exciting to see the changes, but everyone is really anxious to get back in the building."
Currently, the church has been holding their services inside their community hall.
Small signs of those fierce flames still linger, like in the fire-licked side doors leading into the narthex. There's still more work to be done, but each small piece of progress is uplifting to this community.
"Stained glass windows and mosaics are in place and it's starting to feel like home again," Tampas said. "To see its state now, it makes me happy to see it coming alive."
The building team says work on the dome is planned for December and are hopeful to have a summer 2019 finish date.
The sanctuary won't be open for viewing for this year's Greek Fest, but the church is thankful for the support of the community and are eager to show the finished space when the time comes.