HEBRON (AP) — Driving down Main Street in this Licking County village, a white steeple peeks through the tree line. The old Hebron United Methodist Church, built in 1903, sits at the corner of Main and 5th streets.
A congregation hasn’t used the church for years. Instead of a Bible verse or this week’s sermon, the marquee on the front lawn reads: “The Chouse. A private residence.”
The Chouse, or “church house,” had its genesis in 2015, when Valerie Mockus and her husband, Gary, were living in Key West, Fla. The Licking County natives were planning to move back home and had put in an offer on another house nearby, but their Florida home just wouldn’t sell.
Gary, 50, said he wanted an architecturally interesting home — maybe something more cubic and modern. Valerie, 46, said she had the perfect place in mind: The church she had attended as a child was for sale.
Gary reluctantly went to the auction that November while Valerie was out of town for work. One $80,000 bid later, he walked away with the deed to the church.
The congregation had taken amazing care of the building, Valerie said, and it had only a couple of minor issues. The question then stood: How do you make this place a home?
The Mockuses enlisted the help of Project Architecture in Hebron and Build Pro 360 in Columbus for the renovation.
“It was challenging to say the least,” said Jeff Cramblitt, vice president of Build Pro 360. “The whole intention was to keep it as original as possible.”
Converting a church into a livable space presented a number of challenges. For one, there was no kitchen. Another issue was reworking the plumbing because there wasn’t a full bathroom in the entire building.
The dining room and kitchen are located where the pulpit once stood. The sanctuary is still in the process of being renovated, but it currently serves as a living room. At the back of the sanctuary, they installed a bar (the biggest bar in Hebron, the couple jokes).
Classrooms at the back of the church were converted into three bedrooms, a conference room, two offices, a European-style bathroom, a master bedroom with bathroom and a laundry room.
They aren’t certain how much they have spent so far, but Gary estimates around $300,000.
It was the first church-to-house renovation that Cramblitt or Build Pro 360 president Chad Miller had done as contractors, but both said they would do it again.
The Chouse has quickly become a beacon for curious visitors.
“It is a private residence, but that doesn’t stop Hebronites from stopping in,” Valerie said.
Gary has had people ask to come in and see the stained glass windows dedicated to their family members. Couples have taken photos where the altar once stood to compare to their wedding photos.
“Sometimes it’s really inconvenient, but that has to be balanced with this place really used to be for the community,” Valerie said.
She said she knows it might be a little strange to renovate a church into a home, and the couple expected some backlash from people about the project.
But so far, she said, no one has had anything negative to say. Valerie and Gary have hosted open houses and Cinco de Mayo parties at the Chouse to give villagers a chance to see inside. At Thanksgiving, more than 50 family members and friends enjoy a meal together in the sanctuary.
“We want people to be okay with this,” she said. “I want the village to come and see what we’ve done, that we’ve tried to respect the architecture and the history of the building as much we could.”
Valerie said she knows her grandmother would have had something to say about her living in the church that her family attended until Valerie was in middle school. She remembers vacation Bible school classes in the basement and almost being able to reach the ceiling in the girls’ bathroom.
Family members and villagers helped the couple discover their connections to the Chouse.
Pictures surfaced of Valerie’s mother on her wedding day at the church and her great-great-grandfather, Flossy Cooperider, at his blacksmith shop, once located on the church’s back lot. People gave them event programs and attendance records that included family members’ names. (Apparently, Valerie’s grandmother Betty Cooperider was not as punctual at sermons as she had made it seem.)
“I have those memories of this space,” Valerie said, tearing up. “But now it’s kind of folded into this space that we’re stewards of and we get to bring new life to.”
It was definitely a transition learning to live in an old church, she said. The first time she cursed in the church, Valerie said she was nervous.
But now, she said, it’s just home.