Atheist couple renovates church into home

By Audrey Martinovich

My husband and I live in a church. Some people might think it’s weird for outspoken atheists to have bought and renovated a former worship site, but it isn’t that weird for us. We are more intrigued by the architecture and novelty of having our own bell to ring than we are put off by the small amounts of religious imagery that linger.

Luckily for us, only three of the 12 stained-glass windows include religious symbols. The window in our son’s room features an image of the bible in the center. My husband and I joke that this window will put the fear of God in our son because we won’t. Eventually, we will probably change the bible to another book. Some contenders are Lord of the Rings and, of course, Dan Barker’s Life-Driven Purpose. The other two windows have a cross and a goblet of wine, neither being visible from the main living areas.

The church we bought was formerly Lutheran and is located in a small town in southern Wisconsin. I can’t say that we would have bought the church had it been Catholic or other denominations, with their long track records of homophobia, since I’m bisexual. But then again, maybe we would have bought it out of spite and painted it rainbow colored instead of just putting up Pride flags.

Church for sale

The congregation from this church had a new building constructed and was operating out of that location, leaving the old church empty for nearly a year before we looked at it. We saw right away that the building was more structurally sound than anything else we had looked at. And it was super cheap, so we knew we would be able to afford a big renovation project to turn it into a house. When we closed on the church in June 2020, our real estate agent congratulated us with bread and red wine.

We went through everything the church left behind and decided what to keep, what to sell, what to burn and what to throw away. We kept anything with a name engraved on it — mostly little name plates on cubbies where bibles were stored — with the intention of either returning it to the person or their family, or making it into a display piece reflecting the history of the building. On our first night of church ownership, we invited some friends over, projected movies onto the wall behind where the preacher would have stood, and took turns reading some of the names to the group, attaching a backstory and accent to each name.

We removed the 26 pews, keeping three and selling some off to a campground for outdoor seating, the rest to a county courthouse, and started framing some bedrooms in the sanctuary. Other than electrical and plumbing, my husband has been doing most of the construction himself.

During the early stages of construction, we lived in an apartment in another town. We couldn’t call the church “home” quite yet and, while cheeky at first, it got old saying we were going to church when we meant our future house. We decided to nickname the church Castle Grayskull, a nod to He-Man, one of our favorite cartoons. We even have a sign that will go on the front of the building where a cross used to hang.

The church left us an organ, piano, three microphones (which was perfect for me, since I own a recording studio), a box of bibles, an altar, and some other odd bits of furniture and kitchenware.

We donated most of the dishes to a neighbor who’d lost everything in a fire, but kept some goblets and a pair of elaborate chairs, which can now be spotted in the background of the indie horror movie, “The Headmistress.” Written and produced by clients and friends of mine, “The Headmistress” is set in an abandoned nunnery and was in the early stages of filming when we bought the church. My friends asked if we had any items they could use to dress the set and we happily obliged.

Unfortunately, the organ was in disrepair and turned out to be of no value, so we are either going to turn it into a bar or will pass it along to an artist friend to create something new. However, we are keeping the pipes and have relocated them from what is now a bathroom to the living room as a focal point. Once renovation is complete, we will be setting up a Hammond organ, though the pipes won’t be functional.

When our apartment’s lease was up, we turned the church basement, which had a working kitchen and bathroom, into a studio apartment for us to occupy while renovations took place upstairs. The basement housed the piano the congregation left behind. Over the holidays, we adorned the piano with Christmas decorations that originally spelled “Santa,” but rearranged them to spell “Satan,” one of my favorite subtleties of our decor. It reminds me of when I was in high school and, although my whole family is lifelong atheists, we lived in a different church that had been renovated into apartments. My mom bought a neon light in the shape of a martini glass and kept it in the window, visible from the street, as a funny way to juxtapose “sin” with a church.

Mixed reception

The reception of our family into the town has been mixed. Three weeks after our move, the town had a high school homecoming parade that featured a float depicting men dressed in sombreros trying to climb over a wall, while men wearing the town’s high school football jerseys beat them off the wall and sprayed them with silly string. I posted photos online which went viral and landed on several news stations. Everyone in the town knew I took the pictures and, because of the oddity of our house, also knew exactly where we lived. We received a couple anonymous letters after that.

Before the parade float incident, the congregation that had formerly occupied Castle Grayskull invited us to participate in a ceremony marking the end of the church as a site of worship and to welcome us to the town. While we aren’t religious, we recognized that this was significant for them, so we agreed to participate. It was strange to go from the one extreme of literally receiving hate mail to the other extreme of being given a quilt to symbolize the warmth of the community.

In the year since, we’re almost ready to move from the basement upstairs. The stained-glass windows have protective plexiglass over them and we’ve added security cameras. The painting is finished and now we have a list of odds and ends to do. Plus, we’ve doubled down on the anti-racism message.

Audrey Martinovich is an audio engineer and helps produce FFRF’s Freethought Radio program.