A couple living in Wisconsin looked for years in North Carolina and Tennessee for the right church without a congregation to turn into a residence before finding it in eastern Wilkes County.
Now, it’s a safe bet that Jim and Elizabeth Aaron live in the only home in Wilkes with a steeple, stained glass in most of its windows and a door bell that plays “Amazing Grace.”
The Aarons found the 2,100-square-foot building and 1.67 acres on Bethel Road near Ronda advertised online and bought it in July 2019. It’s surrounded by farmland and sits atop a knoll, a half-mile south of the Yadkin River and a mile east of Clingman Road.
The brick structure was the place of worship for Piney Grove United Methodist Church (UMC) for decades.
“We had a vision of taking a church building that likely would become derelict and turning it into a residence,” said Elizabeth. “We were motivated by the visual appeal of a church structure and the possibilities it presented,” including such features as stained glass windows.
Jim added, “Generally, you can get more with a church property than you can with anything else.” They paid the Western North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church $55,000 for the church building and land, which didn’t include an adjoining cemetery.
Western N.C. Conference officials combined Piney Grove, Wesley Chapel UMC in Elkin and First UMC of Jonesville to form New Beginnings UMC in Jonesville in 2018. Piney Grove and Wesley Chapel had predominantly African-American congregations and First UMC of Jonesville’s congregation was mostly white.
A woman who was a member of Piney Grove said in an interview that she and some other former members opposed giving up the church they and their forebears attended all their lives. According to various sources, the church was established over 150 years ago.
The building the Aarons bought was constructed in 1950 or the early 1950s, replacing a wood frame building constructed around 1930. The Aarons said they were told the church originally was on the other side of Bethel Road, directly opposite their home. An older cemetery is on the other side of the road.
The Aarons encountered mixed reactions to their conversion of the church building into a residence.
“Either people really love it and think it’s a cool way to use a building that would go derelict or think we’re probably going to hell because it’s defiling a church,” said Elizabeth.
Jim added, “We tell them that we weren’t selling the place. The church was selling it and we bought it. Someone else would have bought it if we hadn’t.” Another person was trying to buy the former church for a home and bid against them.
Despite a sign saying “Private Residence” at the driveway entrance along Bethel Road, it’s not unusual for people to stop by there thinking it’s still a church. This occurred as recently as the week before last.
The adjoining cemetery is owned and maintained by a committee led by relatives of people buried there. An easement allows visits to graves of relatives and a burial occurred there as recently as this fall. It has over 50 graves, including members of the Hampton, Martin, March, Foote, Foster, Cook, Billips, Hague and Ferguson families and others. The oldest marked grave is for a person who died in 1937.
Elizabeth said living next to a cemetery at first was creepy, but she’s grown accustomed to it.
“When we bought the church, it was as though they had just walked out after a service and closed the door. All the pews, the organ, a piano, the baptismal font — it all was still there,” she added. No Bibles or hymnals remained.
They kept two six-foot-long pews, using one at a dinner table and the other for extra seating. They couldn’t use nor sell 20 10-foot-long pews so gave them away.
Over a year of interior renovations culminated with the Wilkes County Building Inspections Department issuing the Aarons a certificate of occupancy about two weeks ago.
Because of the amount of renovations, they had to go through the permitting process required for a new structure. A well was drilled because the county wouldn’t inspect the dug well already there. Jim said he appreciated inspectors recognizing the uniqueness of the situation and allowing them flexibility.
He has drafting training and drew seven different room configurations, with Elizabeth’s input, for the former church building before they settled on a configuration not on paper.
A contractor installed a wall in the sanctuary, extending about 48 feet from the narthex (foyer) just inside the front door to a few feet in front of the raised alter at the other end of the building.
Walls installed at right angles to that on the east side created a large living room/dining area, Jim’s office and two closets. Similar walls on the west side left a master bedroom, full bathroom and Elizabeth’s office.
Plumbing, fixtures and appliances were installed to create a kitchen and laundry room in the alter and choir loft areas. (Many churches have a kitchen in the basement, but Piney Grove was built without a basement.)
They contacted Laws Stained Glass Studios in Statesville about replacing the “ventilator” portion of stained glass in nine windows (five on one side, four on the other) with clear glass. The ventilator, about one-quarter of each window, flips open.
They learned that Laws was the company that had installed 11 stained glass windows at Piney Grove for $736 in 1955. The Aarons gave the stained glass in the ventilators to former church members.
A stained glass window depicting Jesus, with welcoming outstretched arms, remains above the front entrance. Inscribed across the bottom of the window is “Piney Grove Methodist Church.”
The Aarons reused much of the structure removed during renovation, including wainscoting paneling taken off walls before they were sheet-rocked.
Jim put the wainscoting on the interior wall that runs nearly the entire length of the sanctuary. He said this was tricky because to have stadium seating in the sanctuary, the end closest to the narthex is one foot higher than just before the alter. The floor still has this slight drop.
The sanctuary’s six golden chandeliers were painted white and reinstalled. Two original sinks and two toilets are still in use.
An original bump out on the northwest corner of the church was converted into an efficiency apartment with a bedroom, full bathroom, kitchenette and separate entrance. The Aarons lived there for nearly a year while working on the rest of the structure and plan to make it available for rent.
Jim said turning the former church into a home is a work in progress, including landscaping and converting much of the asphalt parking lot to grass.
The couple met about 30 years ago while both were working at a commercial printing company in Charlotte. They lived near Milwaukee, Wis., where Elizabeth is originally from, for 20 years before moving to Wilkes.
Upon visiting a church turned into a home in Omro, Wis., “we thought how cool,” said Elizabeth. They also were inspired by seeing church buildings converted into homes on a reality TV show.
Elizabeth is retired but works part-time on a contract basis. Jim, originally from Catawba County and with family still there, is nearing retirement.