Dying Man Who Spent Seven Years Restoring Abandoned Church Told He Has To Leave

A Minnesota man who spent the last seven years renovating an abandoned church while battling stage four cancer has been asked to leave the church, KEYC is reporting.

Greg Thomas began restoring St. John’s Chapel in rural Montgomery when he stumbled upon the abandoned church soon after learning that he had stage four neck and head cancer. He said he was looking for peace.

Thomas, an Army veteran and former truck driver and bricklayer, was diagnosed in 2009. He quickly went from normal life to having a feeding tube in his stomach, all of his teeth removed, and 40 rounds of radiation treatments and chemotherapy, according to the Star Tribune. He overheard doctors advising his family to think about planning his funeral.

Reeling from the diagnosis, he moved from his home in the Minneapolis area back to his hometown of Montgomery. He began taking daily walks on the rural roads near his home and stumbled onto the church one day. Since the door was locked, he sat on the steps to pray, which became a daily ritual until one day when he decided to try to find the people in charge of the abandoned property and see if he could get permission to restore it. He found the cemetery association in charge of the property and got their permission.

The church had been abandoned for about 70 years when Thomas began work on restoring it in August of 2009. It was in such a state of disrepair that he fell through the floorboards when he walked in the front door. Undeterred, he got to work scrubbing, painting, and bringing the church back to life.

Over the years that followed, Thomas said that the work restored him as he restored the little, neglected church.

“I was restoring the building, God was restoring me,” he said.

A series of events helped him restore St. John’s even more. First, a year after he began restoration, a film crew happened onto the site as he was working. They asked permission to film the movie Memorial Day at the abandoned church, which was approved by the association. When they left, they offered to pay to replace the church’s crumbling steps.

As word of Thomas’ work on the church spread, neighbors came by to support him and nearby farmers helped erect a huge donated cross in the churchyard. Businesses donated supplies and labor to do more and more.

Thomas began to feel restored along with the church. His feeding tube was removed in 2014, and he was able to eat solid food for the first time in four years.

“I don’t believe my healing came from being in a hospital,” he said in 2015. “There are too many things that have happened in my life.”

Over time, he began to feel that he had a higher purpose in restoring the little church.

“I firmly believe that God has a plan and purpose for that church,” Thomas said. “I wanted it so everyone could enjoy it.”

Thomas got permission to open the church doors and began to invite the community into the beautifully restored church every Christmas. The Christmas open house became a new tradition that grew over the years that followed as more and more visitors came.

Area news stations and even Readers Digest have covered the renovations and the new life he gave to the little church, which continued to come back to life over the years.

In a tragic turn this month, though, Thomas says that he was told recently that he’s no longer welcome on the property. The church has told him that too many people are now visiting the church for the Christmas event, and it’s become a legal liability.

Most Holy Redeemer Catholic Church, the owner of the church and surrounding cemetery, has told Thomas to suspend all activities there.

Holy Redeemer trustee Gene Mach said that they are grateful for Thomas’ restoration but objected to some improvements that Thomas made, such as installing a gas fireplace and running electricity to the church, improvements that he made with donations he had raised. They also had concerns about a lack of restrooms or parking and a lack of handicap access.

“It had to be basically stopped,” said Mach, citing legal worries.

“If we completely fix this up, then we’re going to end up having to insure it. If someone were to get hurt of injured then it falls back onto us.”

Most Holy Redeemer now says that the little church that has hosted up to 500 visitors for its Christmas opening should instead serve only as “showpiece” on the landscape, with no access to the public.

“Honestly, I don’t think they thought it would turn into this,” Thomas said, who disagreed with the decision and believes the church should be open to visitors.

He posted about the decision to the Facebook page he had set up to support the church renovations, calling on supporters of the little church to continue his work so the church doesn’t fall into disrepair again.

Thomas says he understands the decision and will spend his final days at peace.

“It’s a done deal. I understand the decision,” he said. “I am at peace with the Lord. If today is my last breath on Earth, it will be my first one in Heaven.”

[Featured Image by ehrlif/Shutterstock]