House of worship becomes home for living

ORIGINALLY WRITTEN CYNTHIA MARTENS
He found a little slice of heaven in a former church and grounds located on the eastern outskirts of Lehigh.

About five years ago, Rod Funk had an opportunity to own the building that once was home to the Mennonite Church of Lehigh.

Funk knew that some people find contentment living in extreme homes, like those featured on Home & Garden Television. When the church was for sale, he decided it was the right time to move to an unusual dwelling amid the peace and quiet of a rural setting.

“I started watching that HGTV show,” Funk said.

“They have exotic living locations, like churches, school houses, train stations and depots. So this didn’t seem that far off the wall to me, although I think it did for a lot of people. But, it didn’t to me. I went for it.”

Born at Salem Hospital, currently the Main Street Ministries building, Funk was raised in Hillsboro and graduated from Hillsboro High School.

His adult life included time spent in Big Spring, Texas, and Norfolk, Neb., before making his way back to Hillsboro. For the past 18 years, he has been owner and operator of Prairie Products, located in the Hillsboro Industrial Park.

Prior to moving to Lehigh, he owned a home on West Grand in the heart of Hillsboro.

“I loved my little house,” Funk said.

“But it was on a very busy corner. At the time, I was just going around the clock with my business. I’d get in late, and it seems like I’d no sooner get to sleep when someone would start cranking up their mower. So, I was looking for an out.”

Some dreams take time to materialize but are worth the wait for those who are patient.

“It was a long time coming,” Funk said.

“When I worked for the city, we’d sit around and discuss how we all wanted a place in the country with a stream and timber. I realized that would never happen for me because of the prices those were going for.”

Nature’s canvas can be painted in a variety of attractive shapes and colors. Funk saw beauty in 10 acres of untilled pasture east of the church structure. Like waves of sea-green water undulating in the Kansas wind, the pasture became a virtual pond. The timber of his dreams is the prominent, thick hedgerow between the church building and the pasture land.

When the opportunity to own the church building and property was presented by friends, he took it.

“I said, ‘OK, this is my pond and this is my timber,'” he said of the rolling prairie grass and line of trees.

Funk still has a yellowed newspaper article about the former church that reads in part as follows: “Declining membership and attendance are causing the demise of the Mennonite Church of Lehigh. The congregation was established in 1900. The highest membership was 262 in 1945.

“Since then, active membership has declined. Recent attendance has been 15 to 20 (parishioners). The building which is being sold was built in 1969 with members providing some of the labor.”

Funk said he was sad to see the church fold.

“I would never wish that upon any congregation,” he said.

“But, what people don’t understand is that this is only a building. A church is the people. People ask, ‘How can you live in a church?’ But, it’s not a church anymore, it’s just a building.”

After the church held an auction, Funk took possession of his new home.

“I put a shower in and a washer-dryer hookup,” Funk said. “I did a little painting, and that’s all I’ve done.”

The only items left behind in the building were those that were securely screwed in place, such as 16 long pews, a large wooden cross and white hanging ceiling fixtures in the sanctuary.

“But all the pictures, bulletin boards, planters, dishes, cleaning supplies and the pulpit, those kinds of things went,” Funk said.

The building is constructed with a red-brick exterior and a split-level-design interior. Glass entry doors are on the east and west sides of the structure. Funk chooses to use the east entrance, where he can drive his car up and park overlooking his prairie-grass field.

A short walk up stairs lined with a long planter leads to the former vestibule area. South of the vestibule is the pastoral office with two spacious windows looking westward and a home-office desk for Funk.

North of the vestibule is the sanctuary with a wood-paneled cathedral ceiling, an overflow area and a cry room.

“I plan on selling the church pews and, if I can ever afford today’s technology, have a big-screen TV in here,” Funk said. Next to the sanctuary, the overflow room is Funk’s living room, and the adjoining cry room has been converted to one of two bedrooms.

“I rotate by the temperature,” Funk said. “In the spring, when temperatures are moderate, I stay upstairs and sleep.”

As soon as summer temperatures heat up, he sleeps downstairs in his second bedroom where it’s cooler. “I call it my bunker,” Funk said. “I can go down there when it’s storming, and I don’t hear anything.”

The building has heat and air conditioning, but Funk uses them sparingly.

“That gets expensive because there’s inadequate insulation in the roof,” he said. “They were basically only here one day a week-Sunday morning for a couple of hours.”

In the winter, he sets the temperature to about 50 degrees and loads up the bed with plenty of toasty blankets and quilts.

His bathroom, shower and washer-dryer areas are on the lower level near his second bedroom and a hall closet.

A large gathering room and several Sunday-school rooms are also located there beneath the sanctuary area.

“There’s five classrooms,” Funk said. “I’ve started developing them into additional guest bedrooms.”

A spacious kitchen contains three sinks, two stoves, a microwave, refrigerator and many kitchen cabinets.

“It’s big, but it leaves something to be desired,” Funk said. “The floor tile needs to be replaced, and it’s kind of dated.”

Keeping busy running his business, Funk said any major remodeling must be put on hold for now.

But when that time comes, he hopes to put in a third master bedroom above the overflow area. Visualizing a spiral staircase ascending up to the area above the overflow room, he plans to tear a wall out and have a balcony overlooking the sanctuary. On the other end of the loft area, he would like to eventually put in French doors and a balcony overlooking the countryside.

Without a door bell, Funk became creative by attaching an actual small brass bell inside the west door to a string that can be pulled from the outside. The lack of a phone doesn’t bother him, because he operates quite well with a cell phone.

“I’m hoping technology can catch up with me, and I’ll be able to tie in to my business and maybe another location with computers,” Funk said about networking with Prairie Products so he can spend more time at home.

Although others may question his decision to move into a former church building, Funk said he’s glad he made the move for many reasons.

“A man’s home is his castle,” Funk said. “He needs a place he can go and chill and not have to mess with anything else.”

He also has fond memories connected to the Lehigh area.

In the seventh and eighth grades, he and others from Hillsboro attended the old school house north of his current home. The school was torn down in 2001, but Funk was able to salvage some cast-concrete pillar sections from the original gymnasium.

“And as kids, we always came to Lehigh to get our water,” Funk said. “It’s great. The only downside is that water pressure’s not the greatest, but I can live with that.”

His prairie grass holds hidden treasures beneath the blades.

“There’s buffalo wallows out there-perfect circles where they would roll to dust themselves to keep the flys and bugs off,” Funk said.

“The soil’s never been turned. I feel like a caretaker of this land, and that’s important to me. I just get a good feeling knowing I’m taking care of this.”

Sitting outside with a view that seems to go on forever, Funk said he’s happy with his decision to call the former church his home.

“I’m a firm believer that you briefly come upon opportunities in your lifetime,” he said. “You either jump at them or get out of the way. I feel like I’ve been fortunate to jump at the right time.”

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