By Lindsay Whittington
Standing in front of his pulpit on Sunday, July 1, 2012, Pastor R.B. Adamson of Victory Baptist Church reminded his congregation that people said their church would never make it.
They had been through a long journey to find their home, a prominent Greco-Roman style building on the corner of 12th and State streets in downtown Bowling Green, Kentucky, that they moved into in 1979.
This Sunday was a special celebration: 33 years after purchasing and moving into the building, they had finally paid off the mortgage and were debt-free.
“I didn’t think I would live to see this day,” the pastor said, gesturing beside him toward the folded mortgage Brother Bob Jones held in his hand.
In his other hand, Jones fumbled with a red utility lighter until a man with a cigarette lighter stepped out of the audience to help. He lifted the flame to the paper, setting the document ablaze.
Less than three years later, Victory Baptist Church was no longer celebrating. Unable to afford the upkeep of an old building that had a leaky roof and extensive water damage, the remaining members called a vote about selling the church.
The decision was unanimous.
They put the church up for sale, but it sat on the market for 10 months. They enlisted the help of a local auction company, who had a sale in August on the building’s site. The winning bid was $171,000 — more than a half-million dollars shy of the original asking price — from Vilson Qehaja, the owner and operator of Anna’s Greek Restaurant of Glasgow, Kentucky. He plans to give the church a new life as the location of his second restaurant.
“This fit exactly my vision of the perfect restaurant,” Qehaja said.
The next move
The classical revival style church was built in 1912 by the newly-formed Westminster Presbyterian Church. They stayed until 1949 when the church, a northern allied, more liberal denomination, merged with their southern, conservative brethren.
After the merge, the building was used for extra Sunday school space until it sold to the State Street General Baptist Church in 1955 for a reported $43,000. They met there until 1978 when they moved to a new building.
In 1979, the church became home to its final congregation: Victory Baptist Church.
Sondra Adamson, the 71-year-old widow of former Pastor R.B. Adamson, who died in 2014, said that the congregation was excited to move to a bigger building where they could spread out and grow. They had outgrown their old building on Fifth Street and needed a place with more classrooms and room to house their youth center.
Because they had a passion for ministering to lower-income, struggling families, Sondra Adamson said that there was some anxiety among church leaders that they wouldn’t have the revenue they needed to pay for the new place.
“There was some question about whether we would make it or not,” Sondra Adamson said. “But the theme of our church has always been that what is impossible with man is possible with God.”
What they weren’t anticipating, though, was the damage that would happen every time it rained. What church leaders originally thought was a problem with the internal gutters turned out to be a much tougher problem to address: the roof’s design.
They put two new roofs on, Sondra said, but the only thing that changed was the number of people who kept coming on Sundays.
Sondra blamed the building’s continuing damage and the declining health of her husband as the main reasons people began leaving the church.
“I think that’s why membership dwindled through the years because of the discouragement,” said Sondra, one of around a dozen core remaining members. “You get excited and think you’ve got it taken care of and then first time the first bad rain comes then, you know, you’re back to square one.”
What started as a congregation of about a couple hundred in March 1979 dwindled down to around 20 people by the time Pastor Scott Kennedy took the post of head pastor in fall 2014.
The church now meets in a small, repurposed classroom in the back of Anchored Christian School on Cave Mill Road, about four miles away from their former home on State Street. The remaining members of Victory Baptist Church gathered recently at 5:30 p.m. for their weekly Sunday evening service.
Close to 40 black, cushioned folding chairs were placed in neat rows of four filling up the classroom and facing the podium and the wooden upright piano at the front of the room.
Less than half of the seats were full. Only 17 people were here for this evening’s service.
Standing in front of his lightly-colored, wooden podium, Kennedy spoke to the congregation about God’s providence and told them about a former member who still sends the church a monthly tithe check.
“The Lord has a unique way of providing finances for his church,” Kennedy said.
Sitting in his makeshift office in front of a stained glass window with brilliant colors of blues and greens and the name “Jesus” written in ornate lettering, the church’s new owner recalled seeing the building for the first time.
Qehaja immigrated to the United States in 2000 as an Albanian refugee following the Kosovo War. The day after he arrived in Bowling Green, he walked from the apartment he shared with his parents and sister on College Street to the Christ Episcopal Church on 12th and State streets to ask for help.
All his family had were a couple mattresses and a pillow for each person. Vilson asked for anything the church could give them to help furnish their home, and by the end of that night he had everything from a computer and a TV to silverware and plates.
Qehaja said that he remembers seeing Victory Baptist Church for the first time on that day across the street from Christ Episcopal Church. He was mesmerized by the church’s beauty, he said.
Since that time, Qehaja has started and run four successful businesses – an electronics store, a limo service, a construction company and a restaurant.
Anna’s Greek Restaurant was his third enterprise. It’s named after his wife Anna, who he married in 2006. She helped him open the restaurant in 2007 and now works as the main chef.
After a city highway expansion project was begun in 2012 at the restaurant’s former location on Three Springs Road, Qehaja was forced to move his restaurant to a building he remodeled about 30 minutes away in Glasgow.
Qehaja said that the church is a good place for Anna’s Greek Restaurant because it reminds him of the domed buildings in his wife’s hometown of Santorini, Greece. It also reminds him of how far he’s come.
“Buying this location right across the street – I bought this with my own money – it really keeps me reminding myself where I came from,” Qehaja said. “It’s a good story for me to share with my kids so they know the possibilities are endless if you just work and have a vision for what you want to do and you’re honest with what you do.”
A work in progress
On an unusually warm day at the end of October, sounds of electric saws and hammering could be heard coming out the open back door of the former church. Inside, several construction workers were cleaning up old, damaged materials, picking up broken parts and gutting nonessentials to open up and measure the available space.
Upstairs in the balcony, one worker was pulling up the flooring to expand the beams. Qehaja warned a guest not to come on the balcony because of all the nails littering the ground.
Beside him on the wall, the evidence of water damage was clear. Coffee-colored stains covered the wall in a downward trail, coming in from the leaking roof above.
Qehaja, however, was not discouraged.
“It’s going to cost a lot of work and a lot of man hours to get it to its original state, but I’m committed to do it,” Qehaja said.
Qehaja’s vision is to restore the building to its original beauty. He wants to repair and restore the stained glass, the original interior and exterior decor of the building like the woodwork, artwork and masonry.
One reason for his determination is his desire to return his restaurant to the Bowling Green community.
“Coming back here where we started Anna’s is what the ultimate goal has always been,” Qehaja said. “I couldn’t go anywhere else and say I had a restaurant for eight years and have no story to tell.”
He’s using his own construction company to do the majority of the work. Because he’s previously built two restaurants from scratch, he is confident in his ability to get this building up to code and follow the city’s historic preservation guidelines.
“I can tell you this,” Qehaja said. “When I’m done with it, it’s going to surpass everybody’s imagination.”