Piles of pillows and bedding sat atop beds inside a classroom at the former A.D. Stowell Elementary School building, providing a glimpse of a growing ministry within the historic brick walls.

Piles of pillows and bedding sat atop beds inside a classroom at the former A.D. Stowell Elementary School building, providing a glimpse of a growing ministry within the historic brick walls.

Big River Chapel lead pastor John Paul Tomko started the building’s transformation about a year and a half ago, performing work such as replacing drywall replacement with sheet rock and cleaning up water damage. Tomko plans to open a chapel and community center on the first floor of the former school, but he needs volunteer help and donations to keep the project moving forward.

Tomko came to Hannibal two years ago, after teaching in a Methodist church in South Korea. He left his native California with $40,000 to begin the project, starting Big River Chapel in America’s Hometown one year ago.

Initial plans for a Bible college are on hold, but about $200,000 worth of donated furniture, goods and equipment wait in storage. In the future, classrooms could take shape upstairs, possibly as a Bible high school or K-12 academy, Tomko said.

The forthcoming community center and chapel are about “halfway there,” as rooms and hallways receive cosmetic freshening. For now, Tomko and volunteers focused their efforts on the first floor of the building.

But community support is lacking. Tomko said he often talks with people who express interest in saving the former school building, but enthusiasm wanes when he asks about donations or volunteer assistance.

“It’s extremely difficult to get people to participate,” he said.

So far, the church congregation of about 20 people helps Tomko “make do with what we have.” The church held three free garage sales, sharing donated items with members of the community.

“We just give it away free,” Tomko said. “It’s awesome.”

Tomko opened the door to a former classroom, revealing piles of bedding and beds donated from Bed Bath & Beyond. In another classroom, toasters, coffee makers, pots, pans and other kitchen appliances lined the shelves. Tomko drives to St. Peters weekly to pick up donated items and organize them, with help from seven congregation members.

Tomko’s plans for the community center reflect a positive atmosphere for youth and adults to gather and socialize. Hannibal Arts Council expressed interest in holding art classes in the future. Tomko outlined plans for a game center for playing video games and socializing. He hopes to renovate the auditorium for hosting plays and family films.

Tomko also envisions a coffee shop — evoking the late-night gathering spots Tomko recalled in California.

He pointed inside an old classroom facing Fulton Avenue, where renovation efforts exposed old street-level floor joists. Outside, he plans to add tables with umbrellas near a new entrance, so people can gather inside or outside. DP Construction estimated the work would cost $20,000, and the church family hopes to get the funding together to build it, Tomko said.

“It would draw the community together,” “And personally, I can come to the coffee shop every day,” he said, smiling.

Reach reporter Trevor McDonald at trevor.mcdonald@courierpost.com .