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Church in rural Nebraska converted to house for couple, assorted wildlife

Church in rural Nebraska converted to house for couple, assorted wildlife

The Nebraska Humane Society is reopening to the public and showing off the newly renovated space.

Orphaned kitties sleep in the entry and rambunctious baby racoons chatter in a playpen in the sanctuary.

Zion Lutheran Church in Benedict, Nebraska, may no longer be saving souls, but it’s still in the rescue business.


Finding that the church was for sale was an answer to a prayer. It gave Tim and Kathy Johnson a place to live as well as room for her business.

Tim and Kathy Johnson purchased the church in September 2020 as a home  for both humans and animals.

Kathy is a volunteer for the Wildlife Rescue Team Inc., of Lincoln. She receives hundreds of calls each year asking her to help save injured or abandoned wildlife. She can’t say no to puppies or kittens either.

Kathy and Gizmo

Kathy with Gizmo, one of her three dogs. They are usually joined by cats, raccoons, birds and squirrels.

“That’s my therapy,” Kathy says. She works to return to the wild any type of animal she may get a call or Facebook message about. It's a daily occurrence.

Kathy also runs K9 Coach Training, which was why spotting the "For Sale" sign on the 1917 church was for them divine intervention.

Because of the coronavirus pandemic and its impact to her business, she could no longer afford the $1,000-a-month rent on her commercial property in nearby York.

“I didn’t know what I was going to do,” she says.

The church was a victim of a dwindling congregation. The Johnsons were able to buy it, sell their old house and live mortgage-free.

Living room

The main room of the church is now their living room.

The church is the same one that Kathy attended when she lived in Benedict. Her son, Adam, was married there and his sons were baptized there. Today, he and his family live just a few blocks away.

Professionals were hired to install walls and do plumbing and electrical work, otherwise the Johnsons have tackled everything on their so-called “chouse.” They're documenting the project on Facebook because so many people have been interested.

“We get visitors all the time,” Kathy says.

While the outside, with its beautiful stained glass windows, still appears the same, the inside is beginning to look more like a home than a church.

A dining room table sits where the altar was located; there's a couch and TV in the sanctuary, and the kitchen sits where the organ and choir once did.

Dining room

The old altar area is now the dining room.

An overflow room behind the sanctuary is now the main (and only) bedroom, with a breadbox-style roll-up wall for privacy. They used an extra portion of the tongue-and-groove pine on the half-wall in the kitchen.

Kathy's popular dog training classes are held in the basement. The space will house baby wildlife once it’s overhauled.


The basement of the church is where Kathy holds her dog training classes.

A second-floor choir room, with its raked floor, would be the perfect place for a movie room. If they can only find the time.

Kathy says she once bottle-fed 21 baby raccoons at the same time. Two years ago 52, and last year 30, raccoons came under her care.

Tim recently finished a large enclosure in the backyard for an albino raccoon that can never be released in the wild, and squirrels who will soon roam the neighborhood.

Albino raccoon

An albino raccoon named Albee lives in a large enclosure in the backyard. Kathy has a captive wildlife permit to keep him.

“It’s very time-consuming,” Kathy says. “All morning up to lunch, I’m doing something with an animal.”

Knobs sit waiting to be installed on kitchen doors. The main floor is refinished, but try as they might, they can’t get the tracks from the pews out of the wood.

Kathy has enjoyed the renovation though it’s much more work for Tim, who is doing the heavy labor.

“In the end when he’s done,” Kathy says, “he’s happy and proud of what he accomplished.”

Omaha World-Herald: Inspired Living

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Marjie is a writer for The World-Herald’s special sections and specialty publications, including Inspired Living Omaha, Wedding Essentials and Momaha Magazine. Follow her on Twitter @mduceyOWH. Phone: 402-444-1034.

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