January 15, 2021

The Empty Church

Gravestone for Amos Dunn

(Chaplain Mike asked for family stories this week. Here is mine.)

I was born and raised (I always thought that sounded kind of funny—I thought barns and flags and hands were raised) in southwestern Ohio. Lebanon, Ohio to be exact. Some of my ancestors were among the first settlers of Lebanon and Warren County. According to my uncle Chester, we are related to most everyone in Lebanon in one way or another. I believe it.

Chester was the family’s genealogist for many years, and collected oral histories from those who are now long gone. Chester is now 89 and has passed the research torch to me. I spent several years digging into our past, mostly on the internet, and ended up writing a book for my cousins called Hathaway Road. In it I traced four branches of my family, one that goes back with reasonable assurance to Emperor Charlemagne. Funny though—the branch that I cannot trace very far is the Dunn lineage.  The most reliable records only take me back six generations to Thomas Dunn who moved to Ohio from Virginia in 1812. Yet I continue to search for Thomas’ father and mother. I now have a container full of papers, family trees, and notes that perhaps will be passed on to one of my children to continue.

All of that was done online and on paper. The part of finding out about my ancestors I like the best is going to see where they lived. About ten years ago my dad, Chester, my uncle Willie and I took a day to visit all of the places these brothers had lived in and around Lebanon. Great stories were told—some of them might have even been true. Then we went further out into the farmlands to see where my great-great grandfather Walter Dunn lived, and past that a house my gr-gr-gr grandfather Amos Dunn built. Just beyond that house is a one-room school house buried in some trees. And just beyond that is … an empty church.

Union Church near Clarksville, Ohio

Union Church was founded as a United Brethren church in 1883. One of the founders was Amos Dunn. Amos and his wife, Rebecca, are buried in the church’s cemetery, along with several other ancestors of mine. Since the founding of the church it has been a number of things. Methodist and Baptist are two that I know of. It sits near the end of a dead-end road in a rural setting with very few neighbors nearby.

Over the Fourth of July weekend when I was in Ohio I once again drove out to see this church and, for the first time, I found the front door open. Actually, I think it may have been removed entirely. A man was working on the entrance, so I went up and asked if I could see through the church. Bill said sure.

It is not large inside, with seating enough for maybe 50 or 60 people. There are a couple of rooms in the back that must have been at one time Sunday school rooms. It is still fairly clean even after not hosting of service of any sort in the last three or so years.  As we walked around, Bill told me some of the story of why he was there on a holiday working on a disused church.

“My father was a trustee of this church for many years,” he said. “But the last pastor was kind of weird. When he finally left three years ago, the church simply closed. Now no one is taking care of the graves. I’m working on the building as I can.

“When the pastor was still here I came and offered to paint the building, but he said No. I think he didn’t want anyone doing anything, that he wanted to control everything.”

One room schoolhouse on Gum Grove Road

Wow. So pastors of tiny flocks want to wield complete control just like pastors of megachurches, huh? Sorry–we are talking about families, not churches, this week.

So here is an used church in the middle of where my ancestors lived. And for some reason I really want to buy this church.

“No one knows who owns it,” said Bill. “There are no tax records, nothing.”

So maybe it would be free? (Cue laugh track now.)

Why is it that I want this church? Is it some primal need to return to my roots, or is it the stirring of the Holy Spirit? I don’t know. I do know I have always wanted to be connected once again to the land where others in my family had labored. That has been in me most all of my life. I now live nearly 800 miles from that land, but still it calls me.

Could this be a place where we establish a true iMonastery? (Oh how I would love to do that!)  I don’t know the answer to these questions. Perhaps you can help me out. I do know that family is important—even those who died a hundred years before I was born.

I have no idea why you would, but if you have any interest in reading a short history of my family, you can get Hathaway Road through Amazon. But you better move fast–right now it is the 4,100,000 bestselling book Amazon carries.


  1. I am envious… I was only able to trace my Irish roots to 1843 Brooklyn. All other roots on my side were late 1800s. On my wife’s side I was able to go back to the 1750’s mostly because there was already folks working on this in Coshohocton Ohio. It seems the Polands, Loos’s and Wgonners all moved together as farmers to the 1800s.

    Love this stuff. And it all started because my wife’s grandmother had died and we had in our possession for a short time her bible (she was not a religious woman)… I said to my wife “lets look through it and see if there are any loose papers, maybe a family tree” and wouldn’t you know it… a paper fell out with names and the town referenced above. I happened upon a geneoilogy site for the town on the internet, and the guy who ran it had the same last name as a few on the tree and the rest they say is history…

  2. If there becomes a true and real life, face to face Imonestary and it’s located in a yet to be refurbished old country church somewhere in Ohio…..I’ll book the ticket today! Sign me UP!

  3. This begs for a sequel.

  4. Hey! You could have a naming contest to raise money to buy the church. I just found a website listing 119 “cool” church names. I like no. 98: Churchopia. Funny it wasn’t Churchopiate.

  5. That is a neat story, Jeff, about being able to research your family’s past.

    This little church looks like it has “good bones.” The roof line looks straight; it’s sitting on some type of foundation and it looks like there is no sill rot (from this distance, anyway). So, maybe some research is in order to figure out who owns it. If nothing can be figured out, I wonder if it reverts to the Town? If so, they may be willing to sell it for not a lot of money, just to get it on the tax roll again and to get out from having to maintain it. Even if you didn’t make it into an iMonastery, it could be a nice retreat place for you. I do hope it works out!

  6. Josh in FW says

    In Texas we have something called “adverse possession” which can be summed up as “use it or lose it”. You should ask an Ohio real estate attorney if there is such a thing in Ohio.

    • Yeah, I second this. Many states have some sort of “squatters’ rights” laws. It’s just that, from what I hear, it takes a long, long time for you to take possession of an abandoned property. I’d find out what denomination the church was last and go to that denomination’s district and see if any papers remain about the church, too.

      • I just remembered, too. Many states have laws about abandoned cemeteries. They become wards of the state. I think that’s how it is in Virginia. The state may be able to take over the cemetery and the church with it and then sell you the property as long as you take over as caretaker.

  7. My dad managed to trace his line back to the one who came over to America from Gloucester in the late 1600s. Of course, it’s not like tracing your line back to Charlemagne’s time. 😛 How did you manage that?

    Wish I had a cool story about a church built by my several-greats-grandfather. Although, now that my Granny’s moved up from Florida to an assisted living center near us, I’m hearing a lot of pretty juicy stories about my long dead relatives. Like my great-great-great uncle who met his wife, named China, at (as Granny put it, in her thick Southwest Virginia mountain drawl) “a house of prostitution.” After we all stopped laughing at that (which took a couple minutes), she said that China was “her professional name, I reckon.”

    • China sounds pretty honorable compared to some of my relatives. My maternal Grandfather Creek converted to Mormonism late in life, and he had his lineage traced so he could get baptized on behalf of all those dead relatives … anyway, he managed to take it back to 1752 and one Gillian Grieg (German or Dutch, we’re not sure) of Portsmouth, VA, who later Anglicized his name to Creek. But between here and there, he discovered:
      * some Royalists who were forced to flee to Canada after the British defeat in “Lord North’s War” (you may know it as the American Revolution); apparently I have distant relatives in Sarnia, Ontario.
      * one W.S. Creek, whose specialty was robbing stagecoaches (in CA, UT and CO) and who kileed four men before the law caught up with him.
      * four brothers — Cole, Jim, John and Bob Younger — who were part of the infamous James-Younger Gang (with Frank and Jesse James); they’re my sixth cousins five times removed, or something like that.

      I might have some real scoundrels on my dad’s side too, but there’s no way of knowing — anything before about 1890 was destroyed in WWII when the Allies invaded Italy …

  8. grand idea! why not?!

  9. I didn’t grow up knowing most of my extended family. Dad was in the Army and I only ever met my great-grandmother on dad’s side, no grandparents remained. So when I started digging around and found out about my ancestors it was very interesting to find that most of them on my mother’s side were Ulster-Scots who had migrated twice in order to practice their protestant faith. One other possible (I don’t claim them until I’ve got proof) ancestor escaped France after the rest of his family was martyer for their faith. We take so much for granted – what religious freedoms we have and who sacrificed for us to have them.

    I recently found a story about my grandfather McClung that donated land for a church in West Virginia in the early 1800’s. Through the wonders of technology, I was able to do a map seach and see what it looks like today. I’m itching to go and visit it.

  10. Isaac (the poster occasionally still known as Obed) says

    According to the Interwebz, Ohio does have an adverse possession law, Code 2305.04. Looks like we’re dealing with a 21-year period. But, as I’m not an Ohio Real Estate Lawyer, you ought not take my word (or the Interwebz’s word) for it.


    • Thanks Obed, Josh and Mr. Poet. I have my cousin, a realtor in Warren County, looking into the property for me. Another cousin (on my mom’s side) is chair of the Warren County Commissioner and can look into it also.

      Perhaps we will have something after all…

  11. There was an article in the Dallas Morning News in the last month or so about a guy who just walked in and took possession of a nice($300,000?) home in the area. The home was foreclosed on and the bank or lending institution that held the note was in bankruptcy. I’m not sure if it’s a state or national law but this guy found this obscure law on the books whereby if he takes up residence for a certain period of time and no one claims the thing, he becomes the owner. You may want to look that article up!

    • I see that Josh in FW was earlier referring to “adverse possession”. That’s probably the name of what I was just discussing.

  12. Interesting Jeff!!!!

    My Mom’s family immigrated from eastern Europe through Baltimore and ended up in Chicago.

    My Dad’s family goes back to Ireland and County Cork. Then they moved to Montana and established themself through Deer Lodge, Butte, and Helena. Some relatives can trave their roots back to when Montana was a territory. But my family roots there are deep. Included in my family history are some fascinating history of WWII, a relative who was a Montana governor, and other family members who worked in Montana politics. Oh the stories I heard growing up!!! 😯

    • Good grief, Eagle, your family and my family could probably have quite a gabfest. My mom was born and raised in Butte; both her parents, who grew up about 100 miles from one another in Italy, ended up there sometime around 1910. Have you ever read “The War of the Copper Kings”? It’s the political “back story” of western Montana.

      Wish we weren’t on opposite sides of the country!


      • It’s on my list to read. An outstanding book about Butte history is by Michael Plunke. It’s called “Fire and Brimstone” and its about the North Butte Mining Disaster. Oh I wish we could chat over a pastie and a beer. I love Butte, and I’m proud that my family is from there.

        • I’ll check on that book. My mom was born in Walkerville; her dad was a night watchman at one of the mines, until he got sick from silicosis…

          Pasty, dear boy – “pastie” is something else entirely!


  13. rumors are that Mickey Rourke is playing your part in Hathaway House, the movie…. any truth to that, or just ET chatter ?? Great story about the empty church, and super-kudos to Bill the fixer guy.


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