Sunday, August 01, 2004

Haunted Cemeteries – Wesley Chapel 

N 37º 44.179’, W90º 17.653’ D/T: **/*

A tip ‘o the hat to Thundermonk – taking a page from his playbook.

One of the first things you’ll notice (being the observant geocacher that you are) when you travel on Wesley Chapel Road is that there is no Wesley Chapel to be found anywhere along its 3.56 mile length. This seems odd because when a road is named after a landmark, one expects that landmark to be somehow associated with the road. My curiosity about Wesley Chapel (or the lack thereof) led to an extensive search at both the St. Francois county courthouse and the Farmington Public Library. What I found was fascinating, to say the least. Here is the story of Wesley Chapel, as I was able to piece it together.

In the early 1800s, the village of Libertyville (Lat: N37° 42.216', Lon: W90° 17.286') was a small, yet significant, center of religious diversity and tolerance. It hosted a number of churches that were not welcomed in nearby Farmington, nor in Fredericktown, ten miles to the south.

Roman Catholics were never welcome in Farmington, as the city was founded by Freemasons, a spiritual fraternity deemed heretical by Pope Clement XII in 1738. Therefore, many Catholics, having migrated here in the mid-1700s from the Languedoc region of southern France, lived south of Libertyville and worked at the Mine Lamotte lead mines. In 1788 they erected the Church of St. Eligius de Noyon on Jackson Road, about halfway between Libertyville and Mine Lamotte. St. Eligius is the patron saint of French miners and by the 1840s, more than a hundred miners and their families attended the church and parochial school there. By the 1920s, however, most of the mines were depleted and the miners had moved on to Bonne Terre, Flat River and Potosi. St. Eligius was abandoned in 1933 and the property (about 2,800 acres) was deeded to St. Michael’s Catholic Church in Fredericktown. The buildings were razed in 1946. St. Michael’s sold the land to a prominent Fredericktown family of French Catholic descent in 1976.

In 1807 a small synagogue was built near the intersection of Jackson and Wesley Chapel Roads. A small Jewish community owned an operated the prosperous Qumran kibbutz (collective farm and settlement) here. The kibbutz and its synagogue (also known as Qumran) were abandoned during the Civil War and most of the families moved to St. Louis for safety. By Judaic law the synagogue was destroyed, to prevent its desecration by gentiles. They then deeded the property to their Masonic benefactors and today St. Francois Lodge #234 AF&AM stands near the site of the synagogue.

Several families of freed slaves lived in Libertyville and in 1815, they erected an African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church at the intersection of Coffman and Jackson Roads. Most area farmers who owned slaves allowed them to attend services here. In fact, by the 1840s the abolitionist sentiment in southern Missouri was strong and many local slaves were allowed to “escape” into the custody of the Libertyville AME. From here they were relocated to Chicago and points east via the legendary “underground railroad.” Confederate guerillas burned the AME church to the ground in 1863 and it was never rebuilt. Today the Libertyville United Methodist Church stands on the same site.

A small enclave of Irish immigrants of Merovingian descent settled just north of Libertyville and erected the St. Columba Celtic Christian Church in 1842. Celtic Christians were a Gnostic sect, whose beliefs were highly inflammatory to the Roman, as well as most protestant, churches. Among their tenets:

1. The immaculate conception of Jesus by the Virgin Mary was a biologic impossibility.
2. Transubstantiation was an invention of the Catholic Church, based on a misinterpretation of the Last Supper in the scriptures.
3. Jesus did not die on the cross, and hence did not descend into Hell, nor was he resurrected.
4. The concept of the Holy Trinity was another invention of the Roman Church, as it is mentioned nowhere in the Bible.
5. The Gnostic Bible included the apocryphal gospels of Philip, Mary, Thomas and others rejected by the Catholics at the Council of Nicea in 325 AD.

Finally, and most damning in the eyes of the Pope, the Merovingians claimed that Jesus was wed to Mary Magdalene and fathered several children by her, and that they (the Merovingians) were direct descendents of Jesus. Reverend Niall O’Donnell, the founder and pastor of St. Columba’s and chief of the local O’Donnell clan, traced his ancestry to Jerusalem (and Jesus) by way of Provence, in France, Scotland and Ireland.

The Gnostics outraged the local Catholic and protestant churches alike. On June 8, 1851 the Archbishop of St. Louis, Msgr. Peter Richard Kenrick, proclaimed St. Columba to be a church of Satan that actively practiced witchcraft, performed sexual rituals and perhaps even conducted human sacrifices. Based on these trumped up charges, on July 26, 1851 a large mob from the Catholic, Baptist and other churches in Farmington and Fredericktown approached St. Columba’s with the intent to burn it to the ground.

As the mob approached the church Rabbi Hiram A. Tillman of Qumran intervened, and by the strength of his persuasive oratory turned them away, but only for the moment. He promised that St. Columba’s would disband, but not by violent means. He met that same night with the leaders of all the churches involved (including St. Columba’s) and forged a compromise that led to the destruction of St. Columba Celtic Christian Church nine years after its founding.

Under the compromise St. Columba would dissolve immediately (that night). The next morning (a Sunday), it would become a Methodist church (the Baptists would not have them) and be renamed Wesley Chapel Methodist Church. The Gnostics would renounce their religion and convert to Methodism. Finally, the elders of the Methodist and Presbyterian churches in Farmington and St. Michael’s Catholic church in Fredericktown would oversee the administration of Wesley Chapel.

The O’Donnells and other members of St. Columba signed on as Methodists, but never formally renounced Gnosticism. It was said that after the Methodist service on Sunday nights they would retire to a subterranean chamber beneath the altar to observe their traditional Gnostic rituals.

Newspaper reports indicate that Wesley Chapel was repeatedly struck by lightning over the next three years and mysteriously caught fire on several other occasions. Finally, on January 8, 1855, Archbishop Kenrick made a personal visit to Wesley Chapel. After a brief judicial hearing he declared its practices heretical and ordered the church to disband and the building destroyed. Niall O’Donnell was excommunicated, even though he was not Catholic. The whole affair was highly irregular and may be history’s first and only case of a Catholic bishop disbanding a protestant church. Apparently, however, the Methodist Church leaders lodged no protest over his actions.

During the following summer Wesley Chapel was dismantled, its limestone blocks were hauled to Mine Lamotte and there dumped into an abandoned mine shaft. All traces of the building were destroyed. The Archbishop returned in October to exorcise any remaining demons and consecrate the ground to make it suitable for other uses.

To this day, the church grounds remain fallow and unused. The small cemetery that adjoined the church is all that remains of St. Columba/Wesley Chapel. Apparently all churches consider graveyards to be sacred ground, even one that is filled with heretics and devil worshippers.

You can still visit St. Columba’s cemetery at 2567 Wesley Chapel Road. Most of the old gravestones are gone now and the groundskeeper has taken an extended leave of absence. The cemetery was apparently active for a good while after the church was destroyed. I found a gravestone placed as recently as 1914. Courthouse records describe this land as the “County Paupers’ Cemetery,” a graveyard for folks too poor to afford a proper burial. It appears, however, that it has never been used for this purpose. No one will bother you here, but should anyone ask, tell them you’re looking for Niall O’Donnell’s grave. They won’t stick around long.

But … is it haunted?

Given its history, it certainly should be. An elderly gentleman who tends the courthouse archives knows something of Wesley Chapel’s history. He tells me that severe storms have hit Libertyville every July 26th, give or take a few days, since 1851 and that lightning strikes the same spot (St. Columba’s) every time. I live nearby, so I pass the graveyard from time to time. I must admit that over the years I’ve noticed a surprising number of lightning-struck trees along this road, within a quarter-mile of the cemetery.

I have no plans to see if it’s really haunted, but I’ve placed a small cache here for your amazement and amusement. It’s a small camouflaged container hidden very near the ground.

Incidentally, there is another small cemetery at Knob Lick, 6.05 miles southwest (bearing 225º) of this cache that’s worth a visit. Here you’ll find a cast iron bell that supposedly was saved from the St. Columba belfry. Anecdotal evidence suggests that this bell was installed at another Gnostic church that was built at a secret location on Knob Lick Mountain some years after St. Columba’s was destroyed. I can’t confirm this, however.

BTW, if you visit the bell, there are instructions there on how you can log a bonus find. Use the distance and bearing given above to generate the coordinates using the projection function on your GPS.

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