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Decaying church in Turin: Built on private property, it’s up for auction

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TURIN — For a quarter-century, a curving, bright blue roof, a glorious white cross and bulbous gold onion domes poked above the treetops on private property in this small Lewis County town. Though a stark contrast to the rolling green farmland, silos and barns that surround it, the structure that celebrated these ornamental elements — a Russian Orthodox church — somehow belonged in the setting.

Like its location on Milk House Road, nestled on a hilltop overlooking a cascading creek, the noble monument’s appearance contradicted its humble creation from repurposed scrap materials and cast-off supplies.

It was the dream of Charles “Ed” Scherneck — a former Lowville Academy art teacher and convert to Russian Orthodox — that brought the building to life as he neared the end of his.

With a lifetime of artwork and sculptures behind him, Mr. Scherneck began his final masterpiece — a labor of love and a testament to his Christian faith — on his property in 1984, expecting the massive undertaking to require about a decade to complete.

A stroke in the early 1990s rendered Mr. Scherneck unable to fully realize his dream, leaving the exterior painting and small, final touches to be done by friends. Though complete enough to allow services, the inside of the structure was never finished.

When Mr. Scherneck passed away in 2003, his dream died with him; his funeral was held in the church.

Ask any Lewis County resident or two — they know the building. But most are unaware of its recent decline, probably past a salvageable state.

A tax auction this week likely will be the final determinant of the church’s fate.

“Everyone thinks we should save it,” said Jerry E. Perrin, office manager at the Lewis County Historical Society. “But it’s really not a historical building. It’s a work of art.”

Nowadays, the church’s bright blue roof is faded, rusting and splitting apart at the seams.

Without a caretaker following Mr. Scherneck’s death, the five formerly brilliant onion domes slowly began drifting from their high perches. The past two years have seen the cross tumble from the peak, its broken pieces strewn amid other decaying church remnants. The onion domes have toppled off as well, leaving gaping holes in the roof, where the elements enter the sanctuary below.

Three of the domes lie scattered on the ground behind the church, covered with leaves and threads of spreading mildew. Another dome is so badly mangled that only the gold paint reveals its former life. The last one is nowhere to be found. Inside the church, ornately painted altar doors remain on hinges, the last reminders of better days and services that once took place there.

Despite the condition of the altar doors, there are myriad signs of neglect:

n Prayer cards, candles, incense and framed artwork have disappeared.

n Ceiling panels, blackened with mold, are sagging.

n Wooden floorboards shift below with every weighted step.

In addition, rodents likely have taken residence as foam stuffing pieces cover the floor, riddled with chew holes. Even with the plethora of problems, Mr. Perrin has received enough unsolicited comments from community members that he approached Lewis County legislators to see if the building could be saved.

Though the property once was thought to be willed to the Holy Trinity Monastery in Jordansville, it was not.

The only child of Mr. Scherneck and his wife, Dorothy H., died shortly after birth, and with no descendants, the deed remained in the names of the deceased.

Since Mrs. Scherneck’s death two years ago, the taxes have gone unpaid, initiating foreclosure proceedings and therefore ownership by the county. In what likely will be the final step in its journey, the property has made its way to the county’s delinquent tax auction, which is set for Wednesday.

Legislator Gregory M. Kulzer, chairman of the taxation committee, attempted to separate the three-acre parcel — which straddles Milk House Road — to allow for the church to be saved.

“I thought it was a unique building, and if it could be refurbished, it could be a tourist stop,” Mr. Kulzer said. “There could be pamphlets with discussion about how it was built and the Russian Orthodox religion. It could have had some value.”

An inspection by county code enforcers in April, however, revealed its condition wouldn’t allow for restoration because the cost would be prohibitive. Instead of the church being given to the Lewis County Historical Society, it remains part of the entire property up for bid.

The 738-square-foot church lacks electricity and plumbing but sits on a desirable, private parcel along with the Schernecks’ former residence — a mobile home — and a former art studio in a detached building. Though Wednesday’s auction could spark interest from someone willing to spend money solely to restore the church, the chances of a higher bidder interested in the value of the land is greater.

If the parcel receives no bids, which is unlikely, it will remain county-owned and return to next year’s auction. Local code law would require the county to secure the building from trespassers; the building would not be torn down.

In 1984, it was a different story, as the church was in its glorious infancy. According to Father John Campbell of the Russian Orthodox Church in Jordansville, Mr. Scherneck captured the religion’s unique architectural designs for the building.

“He knew from his knowledge and from books,” said Father Campbell, who first met Mr. Scherneck and his wife in 1982, when they joined the Jordansville church after their conversion to Russian Orthodox.

Further driving Mr. Scherneck’s passion for building his own church were two visits to Greece, where he viewed ancient Byzantine style, the religion’s architectural roots.

Though Mr. Scherneck’s church was never completed, Orthodox monks from Jordansville occasionally drove to Turin to perform services and communion for the couple.

With a 75-mile trip for a congregation of only two, some monks would stay overnight in retreat fashion in Mr. Scherneck’s art studio, the cottage-like building on the property.

Thomas H. Farr, Mr. Scherneck’s neighbor, recalled the acquisition of cinder blocks — discarded from a local garage — prompted the beginning of the church 30 years ago.

“All of it is made out of recycled materials,” he said.

“He was always in the store,” said Lawrence L. Dolhof of Dolhof True Value, Lyons Falls. “He was always building this or that. He always had something going on.”

Though Mr. Dolhof said Mr. Scherneck took a lot of cast-off lumber from his store, he wasn’t sure which pieces went into the church or into other projects.

He was certain, though, that the gold paint for the onion domes came from his store.

“We had to special order it,” Mr. Dolhof said.

On a Scherneck-built scaffold, friend Edwin L. Falk helped raise the onion domes and the white cross 50 feet above the ground shortly before Mr. Scherneck was disabled by his stroke.

“I spent a couple of days assisting him with the high work,” Mr. Falk said. “He was getting fragile at the time.”

Years before his death, Mr. Scherneck commissioned to have his casket made with instructions from members of the Russian Orthodox Church.

“I remember when the coffin came home,” Mr. Falk said. “He had it built 20 years before he died.”

Mr. Falk recalled the day he and Mr. Scherneck picked up the casket, which was simple and made of pine.

“That was quite a sight going through Lyons Falls on the top of the car,” Mr. Falk said. “We stopped at Dorrity’s (Restaurant) to eat and so everyone could see it.”

Father Campbell administered last rites to Mr. Scherneck, who was buried in that casket in a small family plot across the road from his church. His wife joined him in the neighboring plot after her death in 2012, their two concrete-lined tombs connected by a window.

A short distance away, the remnants of Mr. Scherneck’s majestic dream remain, on the verge of nearing the end of their life, too.






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