What home means in a pandemic

When I created this blog almost two and half years ago, “Church Sweet Home” came to me immediately as a clever name that encapsulated our goals for the old church we’d purchased to turn into our home. We hoped to turn a church into our home, sweet home.

The tagline required a bit more rumination: a blog about transformation and sanctuary.

The transformation was obvious. I told the story of how we turned a 126-year-old religious structure into a cozy home. I chose the word “sanctuary” for its double meaning: the sanctuary of a church, where congregants worship, is considered sacred. And sanctuary means “a place of refuge or safety.”

Sanctuary seems all the more appropriate in a world riddled with COVID-19 where home truly is a place of safety.

“Home” always evokes warm, fuzzy feelings, wherever home might be. No wonder, home, sweet home is a saying. We’re always looking for home, making a home, just being ourselves at home, reminiscing about home or trying to go back home. Home represented love, comfort and security long before lethal viruses floated through bandana face masks sending us to the hospital to die horrible, lonely deaths.

But especially in a world where simply going out for groceries feels like you’re taking your life into your hands, home is a potent balm for fear. Home is the only place in the world where you can relax. And breathe. Literally, it’s safe to fill our lungs with the air at home. It might not even be safe to breathe out there.

The mission statement we used when reconstructing the old church stated, “We strive to create a comfortable sanctuary in the modern world, built solidly and maintained orderly.” That is, we wanted to make “a comfortable place of refuge.”

The colors and textures I used to decorate the interior expressively fulfilled this purpose. I avoided reds, oranges and yellows because warm colors bring to mind excitement and caution. Very few pieces of furniture in the church could be described as “modern,” because sleek and angular are anything but comfortable. Instead, you can find a lot of creams and grays in our home, and we have furry carpets, cozy throws and soft pillows everywhere.

But more than the physical, I also try to practice peace at home (whether I’m in a former church or not). My husband will tell you I fail to do this often (I never raise my voice!), but peace is always the goal in any case. Home should be an oasis, a shelter in the storm; it has to be in order to be a “sanctuary.”

peace banner
On a background of falling snowflakes. How could it be more peaceful?

During demolition, we unearthed a little quilted banner tucked in amongst the Christmas decorations. It said simply, “Peace” with an appliqued bell. It had a bell! I loved it then because it highlighted a unique feature of our structure, the belfry (and it was made by a former parishioner, so it was special). But it also reinforced the theme I wanted to convey with the church: it should be a place of peace.

During the past several weeks of self- and government-imposed isolation, I have found a lot of peace. But I’m an introvert who has worked at home for years and enjoys creating worlds in front of my computer. I can only imagine how chaotic it is at home for families who are crawling the walls, trying to work and learn together in a claustrophobic space. Or how insecure home feels when the cupboards are bare. Or how lonely home is when all you’ve got is yourself, a bunch of frozen dinners for one and a Netflix queue. For some, a home, even a warm and fuzzy one, has become a prison, even if it is a refuge from infection.

I’m praying for those folks. I’m praying home can be all the warm and fuzzy things the word represents, a sacred place of refuge.

CSH Book Front Cover Only# # #

My memoir based on this blog Church Sweet Home: A Renovation to Warm the Soul comes out tomorrow. The paperback is available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Find the ebook at Amazon Kindle, Barnes & Noble Nook and Kobo.

Candle lighting in a church

candle lighting
Let there be light.
As the snow falls outside in a way that’s somewhere between lazy and impressive, I’m getting cozy. “Hygge,” the Danish word for the type coziness that engenders contentment and well-being, is part of the design scheme around here, and according to the hygge experts, candles are a crucial element of hygge.

Of course, when you live in a converted church, you might not use matches to light your candles, particularly if you became the owner of a candlelighter when you took ownership of the church.

Those who regularly attend worship services see acolytes using these instruments every Sunday.

We found the functional end of the church candlelighter during demolition a year ago. It lacked the traditional wooden handle. Tyler and I imagined what might have happened: A cherubic young acolyte with an attention deficit tripped and fell wildly, breaking off the handle to the candlelighter. Let’s hope it was some incident as slapstick as that; no injuries reported.

candle lighter

Tyler repaired our candlelighter with a fence spire we picked up for a song at some antique shop. We didn’t know what we would do with such a strange item, but we knew we would find some use. And, ta da, a use materialized. Tyler attached the spire as a handle.

But he wasn’t finished yet. The wax candle taper inside was about an inch long. We needed a replacement. As you can imagine, such an item isn’t widely available next to the jar candles at Yankee candle outlets. Tyler put his impressive online shopping skills to work and found what we needed: Wax Lighting Tapers, sold 120 pieces at a time.

wax lighting tapers

So, we are equipped to light candles into the next century. So be it. I remember being a nervous acolyte as a teenage confirmand at church many years ago, but the experience equipped me to use our candlelighter with confidence. It’s much more fun and easier to use than matches. No burnt fingers! And the extinguisher is better than blowing wax everywhere, too.

Here’s to a cozy night, tucked in for a snowstorm.

No place like home

Our story so far: My husband and I spent many months renovating a 126-year-old Methodist church into a residence, and we were getting close to wrapping up refinishing the original wood floors.

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Chapter 33

We had spent so many months thinking of the church as a work site, a project, a financial puzzle and unending to-do list, we had forgotten it was our home.

Home. The very word makes a person breathe easier. This place—this sawdusty, tool-infested, unfinished blank slate—was going to be our home, a place of refuge, a thing of beauty, a space to put up our feet and enjoy a roasty cup of coffee or an ice cold beer.

There was a moment at the beginning of summer after we’d finally squished the spiral stairway into the church and erected it in the corner, a moment when I was reminded, ah, yes, this place was going to be something special.

And then we went back to sanding floors.

unfinished railing
When we were gone for a long weekend, the metalworkers brought the almost-finished railing to the church for final measurements. You can see the basket spindles are still unpainted here.

But, as fortune had it, we went with the same spiral stairway company to fabricate our balcony railing. And when they installed the railing at few weeks later, those same feelings came rushing back. I think it was the instant gratification. Instead of building 150 walls or applying twenty coats of paint or driving back and forth to Home Depot, the railing got installed in less than two hours, and then it was finished. All that was left for us to do was dust it.

“This is really ours,” Tyler said to me as we sat by ourselves in our rolling office chairs in the great room at the end of the day.

“It’s going to be beautiful,” I said.


We were in a good place, figuratively as well as literally. As we coasted down the side of the mountain that was finishing the floors, we had something finished to admire at the end of many days.

finished railing
Here’s a shot of the finished balcony railing. If you look closely in this “Where’s Waldo” picture, you’ll find the two office chairs in the great room Tyler and I frequently used to admire our work at the end of the day.

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Tomorrow: Summer flowers. See them here.

Was I the angel on his shoulder? Or a devil?

Our story so far: Everyone thought we were crazy to renovate such an old structure, let alone a church, into our home.

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I spent a little time talking Tyler into rehabbing a church.

“This is the only way to get what we really want. Otherwise, we’re just buying someone else’s foolhardy decorating decisions.”

“Imagine how awesome our great room will be. We can buy an 18-foot tall Christmas tree. Our children will love it!”

“It’ll be a great workout. Why buy a membership to a gym when we can work out in our own house?”

“We’ll never find a property so cheap. Heck, even the land itself is worth what we’re paying.”

“We can get this done without a mortgage. It’ll be all ours in two years!”

Honestly, that’s all it took to convince Tyler. He liked challenges. In the business world, I called him the dragon slayer because the bigger the account, the more hair on it, the more he liked it. Big risks reaped big rewards.

Plus he wanted to please me. He’s a great husband like that.

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Tomorrow: Buying a church spooks some naysayers. Click here to read.

Like the moments between buying a lottery ticket and learning you’d lost

Our story so far: We decided to give up the nomadic life, and an old Methodist church appears in the real estate listings. Chapter 1 continues …

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I had wanted to buy and renovate an old church for ages. Not as long as I had been playing office as a little girl, but for at least a couple of decades. The cathedral ceilings, wide-open loft-like layout and character details like stained glass appealed to me.

In fact, my husband Tyler and I had looked seriously at a church only a year ago. It was on tree-lined street in Pecatonica, Illinois. At the time, we had been serious enough about buying the 125-year-old structure and converting it to our home that we’d met with an electrician, a plumber, a plasterer and a window installer getting guesstimates on renovation costs; it was a zoo that day with contractors crawling around inside and outside the building. We were what they call in the trade, “serious buyers.” I wanted that church so bad then. I thought it would be the perfect answer to a wish I’d made 10 years before.

I was living a tumultuous year then. One so ridiculous and unbelievable, I wrote a book about it. But to summarize, it was the year I moved out of the house I shared with my husband of 16 years; eventually, we divorced.

Among the entries in a diary I’d kept during that time was a page where I described in list form (of course) how I envisioned the rest of my life. What is important to know is that I made this list when I was no longer coupled and before I met Tyler, the man to whom I am now married, so theoretically, this list reflected my true wishes, unaffected by anyone else with whom I might be living.

Near the top of the list, I wrote that I wanted to live in a loft in the city.

Well, that didn’t happen.

When we were considering the church in Pecatonica, we lived in a big box of a house in the suburbs. It had 9-foot ceilings and what some might consider an open floor plan, but no one would consider it loft-like.

The church in Pecatonica was a smokin’ deal, and by hot I mean it would have cost less than most cars. Let’s just say, it needed a lot of work, otherwise known as a blank canvas to take on every Pinterest dream associated with “loft,” “barn,” “converted church” and “open floor plan.” And the church was located in the center of, well, I think technically Pecatonica was a village, so “city” is a stretch, but to be fair, it was within walking distance of the post office, hardware store and local watering hole. And I thought it was destiny that I might be Monica from Pecatonica.

messy filesI kept everything about the church in a neatly labeled accordion file with folders for “flooring,” “taxes,” “real estate” and “budgets.” As we made our offer, contingent on an inspection, we also salvaged a chunk of the flooring to get it tested for asbestos. Asbestos, as you may or may not know, was commonly used in building materials in the mid-20th century. And it causes cancer.

The church flooring was full of the stuff.

So we rescinded our offer.

I was disappointed, no denying it. But for about three weeks, it was like the time between buying a lottery ticket and learning you’d lost. Those 48 hours when you might win $400 million dollars is filled with extravagant fantasies, and fantasizing is fun. So I was like, “better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all,” you know the drill.

Back then, a year ago, we decided that instead of buying a church, we would sell our home and travel the country in our RV. So I threw my disappointed energy into cleaning out the house in anticipation of selling it. I dumped literally a ton of paperwork and went to the Goodwill at least seventeen times donating accumulated junk we would no longer need. What we valued but couldn’t bring with us in the camper, we packed into a cargo trailer.

One of the things that made its way into the storage trailer was that folder with information about a church we had decided not to buy. By every account, it was meaningless and I should have thrown it away. But I still had a secret desire for a church. I believed words had real power in the universe, and I think there’s a big difference between praying “God, just get me through tomorrow” and “God, please bless me.” One is a desperate plea and one is hopeful prayer. Words matter. Intentions have power.

Now, in the moments between looking at the Methodist church online and getting to see it in person, I remembered that folder of information about the Pecatonica church. And I thought I remembered precisely where I’d stored it. So I dug up the key to the cargo trailer, and I put my hands on that folder within five seconds of opening the door. Between the shadeless lamps and tubs labeled “winter clothes,” I’d filed the paperwork of dreams right inside the door.

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Tomorrow: Our first in-person look at the old Methodist church. Click here.

Why now? And why a church?

Chapter 1

Tiny flakes of snow fell on the northern Illinois landscape when we woke on Oct. 28, 2017.

“What are doing here?” I asked out loud, not expecting any answer.

We were squatting in my husband’s second cousin’s yard, a green square acre surrounded by harvested corn fields. Our home was the 40-foot fifth-wheel camper we had been living in since January. The first six months on the road, we traveled America’s west coast visiting some of the country’s most picturesque national parks, stopping at iconic roadside sites and imbibing on coastal vineyards’ most delicious offerings.

Until the proverbial good news and bad news was delivered.

The good news was we were going to be grandparents! We were thrilled, but we also suspected our unmoored status would prove to be problematic in forging important bonds with our new granddaughter.

The bad news came in the form of a resignation. Tyler’s long-time and highly valued assistant in his business quit to pursue a full-time career. I was tapped to handle the agency’s paperwork and customer service. As a little girl, I played office at a desk with a notebook, a pencil, a telephone (connected only to thin air back then; sometimes now I wish it were still unconnected) and a stapler, so theoretically, I’d just been hired for my dream job. But juggling dozens of account and reams of files was troublesome—at best—in a 358-square-foot camper.

So we’d decided to give up the nomadic life and once again become homeowners. Weeks of scouring online real estate listings and several showings revealed only this: We couldn’t afford what we really wanted. And what we could afford would require tens of thousands of dollars in renovations to remove the previous owners’ bad taste.

Finally, we came close enough to making an offer to schedule a second showing on a tiny-but-could-be-renovated house with a miles-off view of a lake. But the showing fell through when someone else beat us to an offer.


That very afternoon, my discouraged-but-ever-persistent husband found an interesting listing in the commercial category of a nearby real estate firm.

An old Methodist church was for sale only a few miles from where my stepdaughter resided.

church in all its glory
The church, in all its “for sale” glory.

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Tomorrow: Chapter 1 continues with a description of a different church we almost made into a home. Click here.

And so it begins: A real-time memoir about renovating a 126-year-old church into a home

Well, we’re committed now.

Or should be.

We bought a 126-year-old Methodist church that’s been vacant for sixteen months, looks like it’s had water in the basement on a regular basis and has holes in the roof of the belfry. The pews are gone. The altar has been removed. The pulpit? Gone. (But if you need a cassette tape of an old sermon or a print of Jesus, we can hook you up.)

The church is going to be an awesome sanctuary of warmth and family at some point, but first we have to demolish the paneling, fix the leaks, install miles of PEX and wiring, and redecorate.

And I’m going to write about every last up and down. Right here. Beginning right now.

If you’re addicted to HGTV, you’re gonna love this. If you think an afternoon of “First-Time Flippers” is high entertainment, you absolutely need to subscribe. Right now. Right there–on the right. Click the “Follow Blog via Email” button.

If you think we’re nuts, we’re either going to prove you wrong, or you’re right and you’ll find this whole story amusing.

Here’s how it’s going to go down: I’m writing this blog like a memoir. It’s going to be an odyssey, no doubt about it, so someone ought to benefit from our one-way journey to house heaven or hell, I figure. But I’m doing it in more-or-less real-time. So unlike most memoirs, where the protagonist thinks about all the things she’s learned and benefits from some perspective before finishing her story, this tale will be written as it happens. Because it’s a blog afterall, and rubberneckers love a good accident. My goal is to write at least a few sentences every day.

You’re in the right place today, because the first paragraphs of Chapter 1 will be published tomorrow, and the rest of the story will unfold in serialized fashion. Future subscribers might want to begin at the beginning, but I’ll try to make that easy.

I’ve already invested in work boots, and I’m putting on my work gloves. Join me for the ride.