This part of a series of stories on Oakland Christian Church, a small country church north of Columbia, Missouri. It’s an old building, and old buildings can get creepy.
There is a marvelous alchemy between a young boy and an old building that is isolated out in the country. It all began when either the 2nd grade or 3rd grade teacher introduced me to “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” Little did she know that I would later walk up a country lane between the old church and my house, a gravel road lined with huge, gnarly oak trees that constructed a vaulted cathedral, the limbs barely visible against the moonlight. This was the sort of stuff that inspired the writings of Washington Irving and haunted my imagination.
Place between the church and oak pavilion an ancient cemetery, you have the perfect place for Halloween. But, alas, this was the country and kids did not often go trick n’ treating out here. Yet all those who had passed were lurking in the mist, their spirits hovering over all those grave stones marked 1876 and 1878 and 1885. And these folks all came from those abandoned, deteriorating farm houses that dotted the countryside; or from homesteads that had simply vanished in the forest.
My connection with the old church deepened when I became the janitor. I must have been about twelve when all that started. Here I was, pushing the dust mop across tiled floors, in a hundred year old church building at night. Alone! I would hear strange sounds from time-to-time. Were they bats? Or were they ghosts lingering in the old sanctuary, behind the curtain?
Many years later I purchased a nearby farmhouse that was built about the same time as the church. As I sat out on the front porch one evening, I counted eleven barred owls, scattered throughout the surrounding area. One was hooting from the old church. While I never saw any evidence of a barred owl in the attic of that church, I can pretty well guess that barred owls may have been the source of the strange noises I heard as a boy, alone in that building. Anyone who knows barred owls knows that their “hoot” is only one aspect of their vocabulary for these amazing birds can concoct some of the most god-awful screeches you can imagine.
In telling this story, I betray a liberty I took while being a janitor – that of explorer. The church’s access to the attic was through a pull-down stairway in the hallway of the Sunday School wing. I worked up the courage of climbing up there, discovering an entirely different world. Carrying a large flashlight, I worked my way down the length of the hallway until it reached a turn that brought me over the fellowship hall. All this was recent construction, probably built in the 50’s. But then there was this small opening at the opposite end of the fellowship hall. This brought me into the sanctuary. Here there was a cathedral of rough timbers, spider webs to no end and what all. It wasn’t a place I wanted to hang out.
And that was probably a good thing. One Saturday evening I flipped on the light in the sanctuary and discovered the ceiling covered with hornets. Maybe I exaggerate, for it was in the center of the sanctuary, spread out over about five feet, plus scattered colonies gathering here and there in other parts of the sanctuary. I can’t recall how that problem was resolved although the lingering smell of wasp killer sill remains in the depths of the my sinuses. Needless to say, I am certain it was a community effort. My primary role was sucking up the hornets into the vacuum cleaner.
The church also had another peculiarity. It was an old thing, after all. One day I encountered a black snake in the church library. It apparently emerged through one of the cracks in the floor. I was old enough at that time to have a reasonable awareness of snakes and I knew this snake was quite harmless. But it was rather large and I had to solve the mystery of how to get it out of the building. I went to retrieve a bag. When I returned, it was gone. Heaven knows, it and its descendants may still be squirming around that church. I heard tell that another janitor encountered the same thing only a few years back. Not once, but three times!
© Copyright 2022 to Eric Niewoehner