Selected readings from Church Sweet Home

When in Rome, do as the Romans do.

When in a pandemic, do everything at a social distance.

So it is with book launches.

Second only to an in-person reading inside our chome is a Facebook Live video of me reading passages from the memoir based on this blog, Church Sweet Home: A Renovation to Warm the Soul.

If you’re interested in me or the memoir or the guy who made it all most of it happen, check out this impromptu event we hosted on Tuesday evening to celebrate the launch of the book:


The event was “public,” so I might be mistaken, but I don’t think you even have to be on Facebook to watch it. It’s about 15 minutes long.

I’m an indie author, which means I don’t have a publicist. I appreciate any love you have to share. If you’re a fan and a maven, that is “a trusted expert, who seeks to pass timely and relevant knowledge on to others,” I would love for you to share the video or any of the following with your friends and family:

And if you read the book and like it, please review it wherever you bought it and/or on Goodreads.

And not to worry, I’ll keep you apprised of goings on at Church Sweet Home right here. In fact, I’m headed out (wish me luck and good health!) to collect some info this very afternoon to share with you later. Have a great weekend!



Church Sweet Home, the book, comes out today

The big day has finally arrived.

My memoir based on this blog comes out today at online booksellers everywhere.

CSH Book Front Cover Only

The book version of this blog has a new prologue, a proper ending and none of the navigation challenges of reading individual blog posts. If you’re already a fan, it’s a lovely keepsake and an easy way to let a friend in on the story. It’s the perfect choice in the middle of a pandemic when you need to be reminded of how wonderful home can be. Here’s the official blurb:

After buying an old Methodist church to renovate into their home, a plucky fifty-something couple who gets excited by reclaimed wood and deals on Craigslist goes to work, undaunted by risks to their marital relationship, creaky bodies and bank account.

The 126-year-old structure has been stripped of pews, the altar, even the kitchen sink. The wiring is a Frankenstein mix of early 20th century knobs and tubes, copper wire and modern Romex. And the seller discloses the 40-foot bell tower is “rooted,” which the intrepid homebuyers Tyler and Monica take to mean as “rotted.” Friends wonder if there are bats in their belfry, literally and metaphorically, as the pair spends months juggling contractors of varying dependability, wandering around a thousand home improvement stores and sanding miles of wood floors, laboring to prove the doubters wrong.

Based on the real-time memoir Monica blogged by night, Church Sweet Home chronicles the amusing, exhausting and ultimately satisfying fixer-upper follies of turning a derelict community treasure into a dream home.

At some point, I may have a book signing at the chome, but I’m not ready to promise such an event in light of unseen viruses. Instead, I’m throwing a virtual party: Join me (and Tyler, too) for a Facebook Live book reading at my author page. (Early on in the life of this blog, I promised it would be little like a long episode of Fixer Upper, and I expect this Facebook Live appearance will be a little like those sideline conferences between Chip and Joanna.) Also, in honor of the Tequila Budget (and sure, Cinco de Mayo, too), we’ll toast with a shot of tequila. Here are the details:

If the link doesn’t work, try searching for “MonicaLeeWriter” on Facebook to find my author page (go ahead and “like” it while you’re there).

To get your hands on Church Sweet Home: A Renovation to Warm the Soul, the paperback is $12.49 on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Prefer an ebook? You’re in luck. The ebook is $4.49 and available at Amazon Kindle, Barnes & Noble Nook and Kobo.

If you feel so inclined, please review the book at the outlet where you purchased it. Self-published authors love reviews.


The Church Sweet Home playlist

Before we came along, I’d wager the most common music you’d hear inside the religious structure that became our home was “Amazing Grace,” “Silent Night, Holy Night,” Mendelssohn’s “Wedding March” and “Jesus Loves Me.”

And then we bought the former Methodist church, and the soundtrack changed. Instead of organs and choirs, we summoned a good drum track and guitar.

If my new memoir, “Church Sweet Home” had a playlist, this would be it:

  • “Anticipation” by Carly Simon: This was our theme as we waited for the closing date.
  • “What’s the Buzz” from the musical Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar: This was music for the village, as residents wondered what we were up to inside.
  • “Superstition” by Stevie Wonder: A little funk for demolition.
  • “Whip It” by Devo: Crack that whip, boys!
  • “Bat Out of Hell” by Meat Loaf: We have a belfry. And we had a bat.
  • “You Can Call Me Al” by Paul Simon: This melodious bit of music was the leitmotif for our master carpenter. His presence recurred during tiling, construction, garage building and belfry repair. One of his favorites for background music comes next.
  • “If You Want to Get to Heaven” by The Ozark Mountain Daredevils: You got to raise a little hell.
  • “Stairway to Heaven” by Led Zeppelin: This is the music for installing a spiral stairway.
  • “Take Me to the Church” by Hozier: The lyrics of this song aren’t quite right, but the title sure is.
  • “Start Me Up” by The Rolling Stones: Tyler played this one at top volume during one early par-tay after we moved in. It was awesome!
  • “Big Time” by Peter Gabriel: Tyler says this song would come up on the playlist for every book I write, I like it so much. It is the perfect tune for him, my Big Sexy who constructed our big house for our big dreams.

The final song in the playlist would have to be Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus” with full symphony and choir. Between Tyler’s massive sound system and the naturally fantastic acoustics of the church sanctuary, this piece will move an atheist to his knees. And its final “Hallelujahs” are the crowning glory of the completed renovation.

CSH Book Front Cover Only# # #

My memoir Church Sweet Home: A Renovation to Warm the Soul comes out Tuesday. Preorder the ebook at Amazon Kindle, Barnes & Noble Nook and Kobo.



Our favorite before and after transformations

Before and after photos are satisfying. In the same minute, you see the agony of the mess along side its potential: the thrill of victory. Plus, there’s a little spot-the-difference mystery. Is that really the same person/pantry/porch/plastic surgery patient?

But I think the subject of the before and after photos finds them even more satisfying than just any old viewer. Because they know the work that came between the before and the after. As I prepare to launch Church Sweet Home, the memoir based on this blog that has depended heavily on the power of transformation, Tyler and I have been reflecting on our favorite before-and-afters of our church conversion project.

Tyler’s favorite before and after transformation is so obscure, I haven’t shared photos of it until now (and it wasn’t easy finding these shots among the 10,000 photos I took of the renovation). His favorite transformation is the back egress.

Here’s the before:

Back Egress BEFORE
BEFORE: This little lean-to covered the stairway to the basement of the church.

Originally, the only back door in the church was below ground level. This would never do for Tyler’s vision, which included an attached garage. We needed to get from the garage into the house without having to go through the basement. This transformation required many things: relocating the wires that anchored the power pole, jack-hammering the concrete steps to reroute them inside the garage, building a garage, removing the lean-to, cutting a doorway, and building a walkway over the stairway.

This walkway is what Tyler is most proud of—that he thought of it at all and figured out a way to make it happen. The walkway could have been built of wood, but its depth would have intruded on the headroom over the stairway. Instead, he had a steel fabricator make a bridge that was inches shallower but still strong enough to convey a person over the stairway.

Back Egress AFTER
AFTER: The basement stairway, formerly enclosed in the lean-to, now turns into the garage. The steel bridge is hidden behind in the wooden steps leading to the back door.

Here’s a look at the before-and-after from inside the church:


A closet originally filled the space where the back door was cut.

Now my favorite transformation: the headboard in the master bedroom.

BEFORE: The space that would be the master bedroom had a wall cutting through the middle. That wall (just two-by-four stumps in this picture) was built in the late 20th century, we think.

Tyler built a new wall on the right side of the window seen above. Then he and my stepson built a half-wall, an idea for a headboard that I saw on an episode of Fixer Upper. Tyler then created a feature by nailing on wood we salvaged from the basement. It came in a rainbow of distressed colors; all it needed was a couple of coats of clear polyurethane.


The headwall was dressed up with some church-window wall art on the shelf.  The space is lit with chandeliers we found in storage when we demoed the church. I cleaned them up, spray-painted them and lit them with new lightbulbs. Tyler tracked down a couple of old bank safes on Craigslist, and they became our nightstands.

Moody Master AFTER
A moodier look.

The room also has a tray ceiling. Rope lighting is tucked inside, and Tyler can change the color of the lighting with his smart phone. Very romantic! This before and after is my favorite because it’s just so pretty.

If you’re a fan of before and after transformations, check out the Before & After tab on the blog for lots of satisfying projects we accomplished around the church.

CSH Book Front Cover Only# # #

My memoir Church Sweet Home: A Renovation to Warm the Soul comes out May 5. Preorder the ebook at Amazon Kindle and Barnes & Noble Nook.

Church Sweet Home becomes a book

I started this blog because I’m writer. Having already written three books and thousands of blog posts, I sensed I had a great story, no matter how it turned out, and it needed to be documented.

Without knowing how it would end, I chose the unconventional approach of a real-time-memoir with the intention of turning my blog posts into a book. I’ve spent months polishing my prose and having it professionally edited, and finally, the launch day for the book Church Sweet Home: A Renovation to Warm the Soul is coming soon. Mark your calendar: May 5.

CSH Book Front Cover OnlyIf you’re here, reading this blog post, you’ve probably read most of the story and you sort of understand it all ends well. I have hundreds of loyal readers who cheered us on through months of dirty demolition and construction, and I am so grateful for the moral support you offered with nice comments and Facebook likes on so many nights we were exhausted and feeling sorry for ourselves. You helped pull us through.

You might be asking, why would I read this book if I followed the blog? Well, here are five reasons you might enjoy the book as much as you liked the blog:

  1. The book has an all-new prologue about abandoned churches.
  2. The story has a proper heart-warming ending.
  3. All the those annoying “our story so far” and “tomorrow” teasers are gone.
  4. You’ll find out how the real budget compares to the Tequila Budget.
  5. If you’re technically challenged or just too impatient to click through all the blog posts, you can page through the story easily and at your own pace.

I suppose you might know some people who would enjoy the story but aren’t blog readers. Voilà, a book is a nice gift for your friend.

So stay tuned for all the information you need to get yourself a paperback or ebook of Church Sweet Home in May.

In the meantime, I’ll continue to share updates about the renovation. I have a few in the archive, and we still have projects ahead of us.

Again, thanks for reading.


The circus arrives without warning

Announcements, announcements, announcements:
A horrible way to die,
A horrible way to die,
A horrible way to talk to death,
A horrible way to die.
Announcements, announcements, announcements.

I think I learned this cheerful song at summer camp, but it might have been the Girl Scouts who taught it, I’m not sure. I also learned “Do Your Ears Hang Low?” in Girl Scouts, and now I know it’s not a song about ears. Trustworthy, indeed.

In any case, I have a couple of announcements. You may be dismissed if you’re not interested in talking to death.

First of all, our open house. I have told more than one visitor to the church we hoped to host an open house for former members of the church, our contractors and our neighbors on the Sunday after Thanksgiving.

snowy church
Not a snowpocalypse. Yet.
Well, it’s the Sunday after Thanksgiving, and we’re not hosting an open house. In fact, we’re hosting a blizzard. Heavy flakes began falling just before 1 o’clock, and I would have been sick if I had tempted people out in this weather to see our church home. So, God was watching over our little project today, too, just as He has been all along.

We just aren’t ready to show off yet. The garage isn’t sided. Our entryway is unfinished. We haven’t even chosen cabinets for the walls on either side of the fireplace let alone installed them. I’ve hung only a handful of pictures. Pieces of furniture and our showplace rug are on order and probably won’t even arrive for entertaining at Christmas. Speaking of Christmas, I’m only half decorated for the holiday; we’re trying to locate a 12-foot tree that won’t cost us an arm and a leg.

And, of course, you saw the basement. Uff-da.

We still hope to host an open house, but probably not until spring (after the mud—can you imagine? On my white carpeting?). I’ll keep you posted, faithful readers.

And that brings us to announcement No. 2.

Exactly 361 days ago, I began this blog the day we closed our deal to buy the 126-year-old Methodist church. I have posted something—sometimes just a picture of my clever church sign—every day since then. In the blogging world, we call that dedication. I’ve impressed even myself.

But ever since we’ve moved in, I feel like I’m dragging out the memoir part of the story. At one time, I thought the open house would be the end of the story. But now I think move-in day is the end. Fortunately, with hundreds of blog entries, I have a lot of raw material to work with, and I’m going to have to do the hard work of crafting a satisfying ending. (I’ve done it three times before; I can do it again.)

So the memoir-in-progress is done.

But the story isn’t.

Church Sweet Home—the blog—will continue. Only I’m not going to write it in past tense, and the posts won’t be serialized anymore. No more “our story so far” and “tomorrow” teasers. Each entry will stand alone. I’ll show you our new thresholds, and the Hall of History photos and all our cool antique finds, and anything else having to do with Church Sweet Home.

But probably not a new post every day. If you’ve gotten this far in the horrible-way-to-die announcements, you’re what we call an avid fan. Thank goodness for you—your kind words and encouragement is what kept me going—and Tyler, too, some days. It’s nice to know someone cares. But I think most of my friends, or acquaintances anyway (Facebook lumps everyone together into the title “friend”), have long since hidden my posts about every last development at Church Sweet Home. Since we’ve rested on our laurels six weeks ago, there isn’t new news every day.

I should really get back to my other blogs anyway. There’s my blog about life in general as a Minnesota Transplant, my author blog and my blog about organizing photos; they deserve some love, too. I’ll still try to write something every day (because I’m a writer like that), it just won’t always appear here (feel free to subscribe to my other blogs, though—I love readers).

That brings us to the end of our announcements today. You’re a trooper, and I appreciate you. You are hereby dismissed.

# # #

Today’s headline is a line from Erin Morgenstern’s “The Night Circus.” If you haven’t read it, you really should. It’s a magical story. Check out my book review here. In any case, here’s the full quote: “The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not.”

Some of the best ideas come when you’re on vacation

Our story so far: My sister and her family paid us a visit, and after she praised all our hard work, I took the opportunity to show her how far we’d come with a before-and-after picture show.

# # #

Shortly after my sister and her family departed, Tyler sat down and relaxed for the first time in months. We both had long honeydew lists: Thresholds, paint jobs, trim work, furniture painting, decorating, missing screws, missing door knobs, furniture buying and more. I typed up my wish list for Tyler to do, and it was three pages long. On one hand, we were living in a semi-finished space.

church sign shape usOn the other hand, we had earned a break.

We planned a brief business vacation tied to a family wedding in Nashville, so we decided to make it a road trip. All that sitting around took a toll on Tyler. “Oh, my aching back” became his refrain. It was as if his body knew it finally had a chance to break down so it did.

And then we both came down with colds it took days to shake.

And then Thanksgiving came. And went.

The universe was giving us a message: Take it easy. The work will still be there when you’re ready to take it up again.

# # #

Tomorrow: An announcement. Or two. Read them here.

No matter how long you’ve traveled in the wrong direction, you can always turn around

Dear reader, we have taken a break from the memoir-in-progress to assess the accomplishments of the past year. My husband and I closed on the 126-year-old Methodist church just shy of a year ago, and the changes have been immense as regular readers have seen in the parade of before-and-after photos in the past week and a half. Whenever possible I used the same perspective in the “after” shot as I did long ago in the “before” so you really could see the transformation. We’ve seen all the good stuff by now. Today, I’m sharing a look at the “progress” in the basement.

basement before
When we purchase the church, the full basement with 10-foot ceilings looked like this. Many a church dinners must have been held down here, and not long before we took ownership, the local Loaves & Fishes Food Pantry was taking care of the hungry out of this space.
basement November 2018
The basement looks like a construction zone, paint booth and staging area today. The kitchen–gone. The paneling–gone. The suspended ceiling is long gone, and the tin ceiling hidden beneath it was carefully removed (some of it reused). Shiny new duct work has been run throughout. At some point this winter, we hope to transform this area as we have the rest of the church.

Tomorrow: Wack to bork. Or not. Read about it here.

Balcony scene

Dear reader, we’re taking a break from the memoir-in-progress to assess the accomplishments of the past year. My husband and I closed on the 126-year-old Methodist church just shy of a year ago, and the changes have been immense. For the next couple days, I’m telling the story in before-and-after photos. Whenever possible I’ll try to use the same perspective in the “after” shot as I did long ago in the “before.” We’ve walked through most of the church, but we’re almost done. Today, we look at the balcony.

balcony before
When we bought the church, there was no balcony, only a hidden choir loft. As we were poking around during the showing, there was a dark opening on the second story. Tyler fired up the flashlight and I took this picture of the space between the ceiling and what we thought was the roof (it’s really a second ceiling–there’s another space above that before the roof).
end of balcony after
Here’s a look at that same space now. We removed the first ceiling and drywalled the second ceiling (there’s a thousand dollars worth of blow-in insulation between that ceiling and the roof).
balcony other way before
Tyler built a balcony extending from the second story room(s) and choir loft. This is the north side of the balcony.
balcony built before
And here’s a shot from the north to the south. (This was a scary picture to get because I had to walk to end of the balcony without any railings.)
balcony after
The is how the balcony looks from north to south today (or this evening– this is evening light). We carpeted the plywood (because there was no original floor to refinish) and assembled a sitting area in the center of the balcony.
balcony other way after
This is the north side of the balcony today (day light). I can watch the TV on the fireplace from the chair on the right. This is a great place for an introvert or a teenager to catch their breath during a gathering–can still hear and see the action downstairs but doesn’t have to interact. I also think it would be a great place to put a live band if we ever have a big blow-out party.

Friday: Before-and-current photos of the basement. See them here.

The bell tolls for thee

Dear reader, we’re taking a break from the memoir-in-progress to assess the accomplishments of the past year. My husband and I closed on the 126-year-old Methodist church just shy of a year ago, and the changes have been immense. For the next couple days, I’m telling the story in before-and-after photos. Whenever possible I’ll try to use the same perspective in the “after” shot as I did long ago in the “before.” We’ve walked through most of the church, but we’re almost done. Today, we look at the belfry.

door to belfry before
The belfry has an interior entrance on the second floor. It’s that open door near the center of the picture, which was taken when we first toured the church.
belfry door after demo
Here’s that space, at a slightly different angle, after demolition.
belfry door with floor done
This is the guest bedroom, with the belfry door, after we finished refinishing the floors and painting. You can see we switched out the door to the belfry so it had windows (this door came from elsewhere in the church).
belfry door after
And here’s how this wall of the second floor looks today.
belfry interior with books
Once you open the door to the belfry, it doesn’t look a whole lot different than it did when we bought the church (thus, no before picture). It’s a lot cleaner, but we haven’t installed trim or painted; I’m envisioning a bank of book shelves on the left and a window seat on the right. The bell rope is new (it’s hanging there to the left of the doorway) and the window is new.
belfry window before
Here’s how the window looked in the beginning. It was covered on the outside with siding. Tyler guessed that hole there was a bullet hole (but wouldn’t a bullet shatter the pane?). I think I can see a face in the upper right pane, can you? (It’s not me — my reflection is in the lower right, beneath the bullet hole.)
Here’s the new window, uncovered by siding, with a view of the neighbor across the street.
belfry exterior before
The exterior of the belfry when we bought the church hid a lot of sins. The roof below the bell was rotted, and two of the eight piers holding up the bell were rotted so it couldn’t be rung. A number of squirrel skeletons littered the roof area (but no bats!)


The belfry looks a lot different from a year ago. The siding has been removed (though not yet replaced), and the decorative detail on the upper part revealed. The window makes a big difference. And the bell can be rung safely again after we shored up the interior structure (neighbors will tell you I ring it every time I have visitors).

Today’s headline is a partial quote from 17th century Christian writer John Donne. Here’s the entire passage: “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.”

Tomorrow: The balcony (just wait until you see that before photo!) See it here.