By Jaime Thomas
For Gigi Zeitler, it was like divine intervention.
After years of toying with the idea of converting a church into a home, she came to Middle Granville to see if Our Lady of Mount Carmel felt right.
“I drove up to it, and it just knocked me out. To me it was like the skies opened up, and angels were singing and harps were playing. I knew this was going to work,” she said. Since the closing of the property Valentine’s Day 2011, Zeitler has been renovating the former Catholic church into a living space.
Though there is still much work to be done, the unique grandeur of her vision is apparent as soon as the doorbell chimes Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and the huge front door opens.
The Gothic church has remained as a large, open plan that is only slightly partitioned. Original hardwood, which was preserved under carpeting, runs throughout, and vibrant stained-glass windows, intermingled with Zeitler’s own art, line the walls.
“The windows are magnificent. Every day I look at them and pinch myself to tell myself how lucky I am,” she said. Other aspects of the previous place of worship have been preserved as well. Remodeled pews function as rich cabinetry in the kitchen and form an elegant bar top. A kneeling bench serves as the foot rest.
Zeitler aims to open the church as a community space, so she designed the kitchen to resemble a bar and “so it doesn’t scream residential.” Appliances are hidden by pocket doors, and a full shelf of liquor is stacked on one of the countertops.
“This space just asks to be used publicly. I will be doing that as a community thing,” Zeitler said, explaining that she hopes to offer it for local theater, poetry readings, musical performances and more; she’s already hosted several parties and is currently in the process of installing a sound system.
The bathroom, too, has a separate powder room and bathing area; it was designed for public use.
The vast interior of the church could be intimidating, but Zeitler, who for years worked as an interior designer, said it was easy for her to plan.
“So when people say, ‘how do you know what to do with the space?,’ that’s never been a problem for me.”
Zeitler was born in Germany and lived with her family first in the western United States and then in New York City and New Jersey. She is an artist in a number of mediums, especially paintings of people. She has two studio spaces in the church—one overflowing with fabric for sewing and the other for painting.
Her bed is placed in what was once the alter, a location she said was logical because of low ceilings and proximity to the bathroom and closet. The upstairs is being transformed into three semi-private guest rooms.
Zeitler said the desire to live in a church was born when she was 16 and read a magazine article about another couple doing so.
“I thought that was really interesting. That was relegated to the back of my mind, but it was always there that you could do this,” she said. When she and her late husband were looking at purchasing a second home away from their downstate location, she again brought up the idea of a church where she would have room for a studio.
Her husband passed away, and about 10 months later she was browsing the internet again for houses while tending to her son, who was in the hospital. She saw the Carmel church was still for sale, and its price had gone down.
As the diocese’s representative could only meet the next day, she made a 5-hour drive to see if the last piece of the puzzle fit into place.
“All that was left was for me to look at it and see if it felt right. I was so excited,” she said. She was told the church was 150 years old chronologically, but the effective age was only 25 years old—it was in great shape.
The diocese, who was selling the church because of consolidation, sold it to Zeitler for her asking price without haggling. She said the history of the building played into her efforts to keep the original features.
“I feel very respectful for this place—people worshipped here, marriages were performed here, funerals were held here,” she said, adding that she was anxious former parishioners might take offense to the home.
“I was worried when I came up here there would be understandable resentment or anger, but most people I’ve talked to who used to worship here say it’s better than it being torn down. I’m grateful that people understood I didn’t take their church away,” she said.
Hints of the former congregation—from names of honored members in the windows to dedicated gold chandeliers—still pop up here and there.
Zeitler said she didn’t know what to expect when moving to the area, but that she has since fallen in love with the people of Granville.
“I’m just so amazed that this dream I had for so long has become a reality,” she said