By Riley Manning/NEMS Daily Journal
It is often said a church is not a building, but the congregation, a group of people called to live out the gospel in the world.
Just as people change, so congregations change in size and need, forcing them to let go of the buildings many of them have come to think of as home. Fortunately, the hands churches fall into can be quite loving.
Alive and Well
The Amory Church of Christ outgrew its original location on Main Street over 60 years ago. Since then, the church has hosted a few ventures, most recently a hair salon that closed in the ‘90s. It waited empty until 2010, when real estate saleswoman Penny Leech bought it at foreclosure on a whim, unsure of what exactly to do with it.
“My husband and I loved the building,” she said. “We bought it at a steal, but it was too strange for banks to make an investment in.”
Leech fostered a longtime interest in the art of yoga, and decided to get her instructor’s certification and turn the sanctuary into her Alive and Well yoga studio. In addition, she altered the basement of the church to hold a small number of climate-controlled storage units, the rent from which would help fund the building.
“We had this huge renovation in mind at first, but I think we had been watching too much HDTV,” she said. “We really didn’t do much besides put in a new floor, central heat and air, and new paint.”
She said the calming practice of yoga fit well with the cozy sanctuary of the church. Her husband, a musician, enjoys the acoustics provided by the lofty ceiling.
“It’s a refuge and a playground, where I can come and do something for me,” Leech said. “It’s not very common for a church to go on the real estate market, but when it does it takes some creativity to reuse the space.”
Right around the corner in Amory sits a church that predates the town itself. Now known simply as “The Windows,” the church originated in nearby Cotton Gin Port until, seeking higher ground, the congregation rolled the original wooden structure into Amory on logs in 1887.
For years, the church served as home to multiple denominations until each one could build a church of its own.
“The railroad sold church plots back then for one dollar,” said Gloria Herring, who took an interest in the church when she noticed a for sale sign on it in 2010.
Herring said the wooden building was built over in brick – the current structure – in 1926, and changed hands numerous times until 1988 when it was purchased and used by Free Will Baptist Church. Free Will’s congregation dwindled until there weren’t enough members to afford the upkeep. When Herring came across it, she had heard it was going to be demolished or chopped up to sell the windows it gets its name from.
“My husband and I wanted to see it before it was torn down. Once I got inside and saw the original pews and windows, I knew I wanted to save it,” she said.
Herring then spearheaded a successful effort to purchase the building with the help of the CREATE Foundation. Today, the church remains well-kept and untouched aside from the installation of central heat and air. It is booked regularly for weddings, receptions, family reunions, and cultural events like a holiday market taking place in the fall, where local artists can display and sell their work.
The Sanctuary Antiques and Garden Shop in Corinth was an actual sanctuary until 2002, when St. Paul’s Episcopal Church outgrew the building and relocated to a new building on Highway 250.
Jan Grady, a member of St. Paul’s since moving to Corinth 50 years ago, said when she arrived, the congregation numbered in the 30s. It stayed small until the late 1980s, when industry around Corinth drew more people. She credited young clergy kept fresh faces in the pews, as more young couples and new families migrated to the city. Soon, even the parish house next to the church was not enough to contain its members. With no room to expand in the residential neighborhood, the congregation was forced to part from their church home. The church building and grounds were deconsecrated , and the congregation moved to a new facility on property the church purchased in 1999, after exploring every other option. “We even thought about moving the church, but taking down power lines along the route was too costly,” Grady said.
Though a few members had reservations about a new facility, Grady said once they experienced the convenience of a bigger space, they became more comfortable with it.
“We took the windows, pews, communion rail, so it was almost like we had just redecorated,” Grady said. “It still feels like home and everyone is pleased with the way the old building has been kept up.”
The building, now an antique shop in the main building and a florist in the parish house, was snatched off the market by Susan Dickerson in 2003. Hunting and trading antiques had been a hobby of Dickerson’s for some time, so she thought the church was a chance to make a living out of something she enjoyed.
“The store has a lot of character, and aside from the missing pews, most things are still the same,” she said. “Members from St. Paul’s come in every now and then and talk about how they used to sit at a certain place in the store, or how they watched their children get married there.”
Dickerson said she was intentional about treating the old church with sensitivity, and that sensitivity has paid off by offering a unique and memorable atmosphere for visitors.