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Their Long Island homes are their sanctuaries (of sorts)

Former AME church in Northport that is now

Former AME church in Northport that is now a home. Credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa Loarca

People who buy homes that once were churches know they come with challenges. What they usually find out is that they also come with stories.

Take, for example, Donna Lee and her husband, Scott, who turned a former 1860 Methodist church in Bayville into their home. The two were familiar, of course, with the small tower atop the church fitted with a nonworking bell. A former parishioner showed up one day and told them why. It seems a resident across the street in the early 1900s liked to sleep late and offered the church $10,000 to keep it silent. They stopped the bell, took the cash and bought 10 stained glass windows. 

“I don’t know if it’s true,” Lee says, laughing. “But I’ve talked to some historians and no one says it isn’t.”

History aside, converting a once-sacred structure into a private residence might seem strange to some, but those who live in them mention advantages such as their accommodating space, architectural integrity and welcoming atmosphere.

“I’ve never felt awkward here,” says Barbara Daddino, a retired interior designer who lived seven years in a former Methodist Episcopal church built in 1846 in Mount Sinai. (She is now selling the property for an asking price of $600,000.) It still has an ambience even first-time visitors sense, she says.

“After about five minutes, they say, ‘There is something really peaceful about this house.' ”

Most church structures come on the market either because a congregation has moved or the flock has dwindled in size until it is unsustainable. A recent Gallup survey showed church membership has declined by 20 percent over the last two decades, a figure in line with an increasing number of Americans who say they have no religious preferences. The result could be that more such real estate listings are likely to appear in the future.

“We find a high demand for homes with historical significance,” says Amanda Eckart, an agent with Keller Williams Points North, who is selling Daddino’s home. “It’s fun knowing what happened in its background.”

Barbara and Terence McNally actually were looking at other homes in the Northport area when they spotted a compact structure overgrown with trees and bushes on Church Street. When they found out it was a former house of worship known as the Allen African Methodist Episcopal Church, they got even more interested, and they ended up purchasing it in 1994.

“We love it,” says Barbara McNally. “It has a happy vibe to it.”

A book, “African Americans in Northport: An Untold Story,” explains that the church was constructed in 1908 and was a house of worship for 47 years before the congregation was dissolved due to dwindling membership. The congregation was always small, the book said. One former member is quoted as saying, “If we had had a choir, there wouldn’t have been anyone left to sit in the pews.”

The McNallys refinished and kept the original flooring and wainscoting and also put in an antique Spanish door in keeping with the religious theme. The home was designated a historic site by the Town of Huntington in 2011 and still has its original cornerstone. Barbara was told congregants sometimes picnicked on the hill behind the church after the service, and she has found forks, spoons and other remnants while gardening there. A former parishioner she once met asked how the structure had been changed.

“He said he couldn’t imagine it as a house,” says Barbara McNally. “I told him I couldn’t imagine it as a church.”

Barbara Daddino did her own research into the Mount Sinai church she bought in 2004 and was pleased to discover a bit of conflict in its past.

“I never wanted to live in an ordinary house,” she says.

A newspaper story Daddino found from 1901 noted the congregation had split and that the Episcopalians moved the church organ at night to their new place of worship in Port Jefferson — without the Methodists’ approval. She also learned the church building was sold as a private residence that year and passed through several hands with many former occupants being women, including a female rabbi. After buying the residence, now described as a Dutch Revival-style home, she made sure to retain all the original doors, windows and moldings. There was a cemetery nearby, but it was relocated years ago.

When living there, she liked to sit outside, enjoying its rural setting not far from the Long Island Sound and imagining the strawberry festivals and church cookouts held on the grounds, she says.

“I practically lived on that front porch,” she says.

Donna Lee's route to life in a former church in Bayville began in 1978, when her father bought the property as an investment. It already had passed through several phases, including use as a real estate office, a theater and the headquarters of a small newspaper. After her father died, she bought out her sisters’ share of the property. Later, when she married and began looking for a home with her husband, Scott, 58, a commercial painter, the market was booming. Realizing they could never find an affordable home with as much space as in the church -- about 3,600 square feet -- they decided to move in and renovate.

Even after adding living accommodations, there was enough room that both her offspring learned to ride a bike and skateboard inside, says Lee, 60, who works for the Nassau County Board of Elections. Many of her family’s holidays are held there since she can put lengthy tables end-to-end. Still, there are some drawbacks.

The 20-foot ceilings make it expensive to heat, she says, and the layout necessitated them making some unusual living arrangements.

“We say we live in an upside-down house, because our bedrooms are downstairs and our living room is upstairs,” Lee says.

The fact that their residence still looks basically the same on the outside also creates some problems. Nostalgic former members who were married or baptized there occasionally come inside not realizing it is no longer a church.

“I mean, without knocking,” says Lee.

Still, she loves that time of day when light streams in through the stained glass windows, spreading a feeling of serenity throughout the home, she says.

And that bell? Still silent.

“I wanted to ring it when I got married,” Donna says, “but it was too much work to get it rigged up again.”

Want to live in a church?

One of the main benefits of owning a home that was once a church is that you also gain a heavenly amount of space. Below are two structures for sale in that category.

A former 1880 Methodist church in Greenport is listed for $1.195 million. It has been renovated and contains 5,700 square feet of space complete with intricate woodwork and stained glass windows. It has five bedrooms, four baths and a kitchen along with a bell tower, gym and garage. The structure was once owned by Greenport. Annual property taxes are $20,915. “It’s by far my most unique listing,” says  real estate agent Isaac Israel with Richmond Realty (631-727-5500). “People are intrigued by it.” 

A Patchogue house of worship is on the market for $1.3 million. The First Church of Christ, Scientist, was built in 1929 with 5,000 square feet still being used as a church. It is a Tudor-style building with a slate roof, beamed ceilings, leaded glass windows and solid wooden doors on a one-acre property near the village. Annual property taxes are to be determined by use. “Most people think this was a church converted from a house,” says Lisa Silverstein of Century 21 Bay’s Edge Realty (631-848-2005), one of the listing agents, noting the property's estate look. “It’s a beautiful building on lovely property. We’re looking for a buyer with imagination and vision.”

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