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Church Group Buys Historic Johnsonville Village

Johnsonville, the eerie, abandoned village situated in a rural pocket of Connecticut, lived up to its nickname Friday, its wooden fences swaying in the wind, rain dripping through cracked ceilings in vintage buildings as dark clouds rolled overhead.

But the 62-acre district, an 18th Century community of antique buildings assembled in the 1960s, is about to experience a revival. Once envisioned as a tourist attraction by its wealthy creator, the property, long regarded as a “ghost town,” was sold to an international church that plans to renovate its aging structures and build a new place of worship.

Iglesia Ni Cristo – the Church Of Christ – paid $1.85 million for Johnsonville in a deal that came together so swiftly it stunned town officials. A representative for the church said a month passed between the start of negotiations and the closing on Friday, but East Haddam leaders acknowledged they had only heard about the sale 10 days ago.

“This happened awfully quick,” Emmett J. Lyman, the first selectmen, said. “My thought was, it’s going to take a week or two; they’re going to look at stuff and evaluate what they’ve got. Not so.”

Meyer Jabara Hotels in Danbury, Johnsonville’s previous owner, auctioned off the property in 2014. But that deal fell through, and for the last three years the land has remained deserted. The hotel group put it back on the market in 2015 with an asking price of $2.4 million. The cost later dropped to $1.9 million. Members of Iglesia Ni Cristo came by in June, and figured the spot would be a good addition to the church’s numerous New England properties. The organization, formed in 1914 in the Philippines, has locations across the country and abroad. In Connecticut, it already has a presence in Bristol, Stamford and Windham.

On its website, the church describes itself as a Christian religion “whose primary purpose is to serve and worship the Almighty God based on His teachings recorded in the Bible.”

Joji Crisostomo, Iglesia’s northeast district manager, said plans for Johnsonville have not been finalized, but the church would aim to preserve the historic buildings and possibly upgrade a chapel on the grounds. No timetable was available for the work.

“We would like to see it brought back to life,” Crisostomo said. “We don’t like the term ‘ghost.’ I don’t think anybody likes that.”

It’s not yet clear whether the property will be taken off the tax rolls. Town officials said that will depend on what is built there.

Some of the community’s elaborate, Victorian-style structures are in decent shape. But others, like its general store and the famed Emory Johnson Homestead, show glaring signs of wear and tear: peeling paint, rotted wood, dusty floors and wayward fence posts.

Moths flitted across the ceiling at the Centerbook Meeting House, an empty building with wooden pews where church officials signed papers Friday. The village, in the Moodus section of town, was created by industrialist Raymond Schmitt after he purchased the nearby Neptune Twine and Cord Mill Factory in the mid-1960s.

Schmitt traveled throughout New England and bought antique buildings, including a schoolhouse, a chapel and a livery stable. He moved them to Moodus to recreate an 18th Century village on the former mill site. It was opened to the public around the holidays and hosted private functions, but never became a bustling tourist attraction.

For town leaders, the sale brought hope that the once-admired landmark would be restored.

“This is one that I’ve watched for 20 years, waiting for something to happen,” Lyman said. “It was so good. It was so wonderful once upon a time. And the idea that it’s going to come back – that’s terrific.”