Friday, July 11, 2008

The Ghosts of the Asbury Church Graveyard

For a few years in the 1990s I was involved in The United Methodist Church. One of the positions I held during this time was as “Lay Ministry Coordinator” at Asbury UMC in Erie Pennsylvania from fall 1996 till the almost end of 1997. I ran the Education Department and Youth Groups with the goal to train leaders who would eventually take over my various positions and responsibilities.

I had some great times at Asbury UMC, some of them were a bit bizarre and a few were paranormal.

The Pastor that I worked with had a young teenage daughter who loved spooky stories, and I told her some of the strange experiences that I have had over the years while I worked with her and the other kids in the Youth Group. After a few months the other Pastor asked me not to tell these tales to her anymore. He thought they might be having an impact on her.

And it was beginning to frightened him.

For she was beginning to see ghosts in the Church Cemetery which was adjacent to their parsonage.

I could have dismissed this as youthful fantasy if there were not so many other stories to back up her claims.

Asbury Methodist Church is one of the oldest churches in Erie. It began as a small meeting house in 1819 and relocated to its current location next to the graveyard in 1823. Over the years as the church acquired more land, buildings have come and gone. In the 1940s urban expansion and the building of a local airport increased traffic drastically. This meant a widening of the area roads and since the church graveyard sat at the corner of the major intersection, a sizable chunk of the graveyard had to be plowed up and what remains that were found had to be relocated.

Many of the older members of the congregation told me that some of the older graves whose occupants and coffins had long ago dissolved into the earth were plowed flat and paved over for the widening of Asbury Road. The old wooden crosses that once marked their graves had become indiscernible wooden posts and were discarded by the crew working on the road. A few weathered pieces of marble tombstones were tossed aside as well for the road widening project. These aged graves were no longer remembered and their families long gone. And the remains of the former occupants which were too minuscule to see were scattered and pounded into the earth under the asphalt.

The older members always talked about this incident with pity and disdain, but the State was in control of the project. Even though the tradition handed down from generations within the church told that there were graves at those locations, the State said there was no real evidence to support that claim since there were no bodies or coffins to be found. So the project proceeded as planned and the earth was leveled and paved.

Within a few years sightings and strange happenings went on in the cemetery and the old church building.

The Pastor would come to the church Sunday morning only to find all the doors unlocked, even though he had been there the night before and had secured the building before leaving. Visitors in the building late at night would swear they heard bells ringing somewhere, but the source was never found. Candles would seemingly light themselves at the Altar. Hymnals used by the choir were often found in the back of the church instead of the front where the choir had left them. Only later did someone remember that until the end of the 19th century the choir area was actually in the back of the church- in the area to where the hymnals had been inexplicably moved. One lady told me that during a church dinner in the early 1950s she had noticed a strange old lady in Victorian clothing sitting alone at a table drinking tea. She turned to the Pastor to ask who the visitor was and as they both turned to where she had been seated there was no one there. There was however a spoon on the table, but no tea as well as no Victorian garbed lady.

But the most frequent occurrences of the paranormal occurred in the graveyard itself. Passersby traveling on Asbury or West Ridge Road would see mists or glowing lights in the cemetery area in the late night and early morning. Someone had asked one of the parishioners why the church had a burial at 2 o’clock in the morning a few nights before. While he insisted that there was no such service the person was sure he saw a large group of mourners gathered by the roadside late at night carrying a casket through the graveyard. Perplexed they both examined the grounds which proved to show no signs of a new grave or any other recent activity.

In 1965 the old church building was torn down to make way for a new facility that was completed in the 70s. While the new building does have its occasional unexplainable occurrences (strange sounds, lights on and off for no reason) it cannot compare to the activity at the former church edifice. The church parsonage stands next to the graveyard and the top northeast bedroom has a window peering out at the lawn full of century old headstones.

That was the bedroom of my coworker’s daughter. She was seeing things from her bedroom window at night. I asked her what exactly she had been seeing. She swore that she would see different people standing in the graveyard late at night. There was an old man in work cloths of a different era that would just stand in the cemetery staring out over the hillside above the airport runway. He would just disappear and reappear out of nowhere. There was also a lady that she repeatedly saw walking back and forth in the graveyard with flowers in her hand who seemed to be made out of mist. Her translucence would vary every time she was observed. And the young girl told me that a few times in the summer she would be jarred awake in the middle of the night by the laughter of a child coming from the cemetery. Only one time had she seen anything after hearing the laughter, late one evening she beheld a little boy in lederhosen running back and forth between the tombstones. He ran behind one large marble slab and never appeared coming out the other side-he simply vanished.

When I asked some of the elder parishioners about these apparitions that the girl had experienced there were a multitude of responses.

Some gave names to the specters, for they had been around for years having been claimed by various families.

Others dismissed it as tricks of lighting or pranksters fooling around in the graveyard at night.

I stopped telling her my own stories, but she did not stop seeing these nightly other worldly visitors and telling others about them.

I never saw any of these spectral visitors myself, although I did have some strange occurrences in my office. Things would disappear and appear elsewhere. One of my walls was an old sliding partition that only opened from my side. I often found it opened a crack, and I was the only one with a key to my office to access the inside latch of the partition.

Then again I did have a lively group of youth back then. They even wrote my Alma Mater and claimed to be my widow. You see I had died in 1997. Imagine my surprise when I received the condolence cards from fellow College Alumni later that year after my service at the church was complete. It wasn't until around 2003 that I convinced the Nyack College Alumni Association that I was still alive.

Darn kids.

But the most unexplained thing I ever encountered at Asbury UMC had to do with the living . Arriving early one morning to ready the gym for the youth group I opened the gym storage closet only to find a drunken wino passed out on the closet floor. He scared me half to death. All the doors and windows had been locked with the only exception being a small window over the kitchen’s dishwasher one foot high and two foot wide that was six feet off the ground on the inside and well over eight feet off the ground from the outside. He must have really needed a place to sleep it off for the night. But he wasn’t an apparition unless there are ghosts that smell like MD 20/20 and run away real fast when they see a frightened minister. If anyone has encountered any such entity please let me know. But I think the only spirits on the premises that morning were rotting a liver.

Too bad, I’d like to have had tea with that old Victorian lady. Make mine Earl Grey.

Until next time,

Pastor Swope


Anonymous said...

I've been wondering how one might go about sending off such wayward spirits, as I've had my own share of graveyard creepies, although both were around a new moon. I've heard such activity waxes and wanes with the moon phase for some reason. Any thoughts on this?

Anonymous said...

I've been wondering if there's any way to give a sendoff to such wayward spirits. I've had my own share of graveyard experiences, though those happened around a new moon. I've been told of activity waxing and waning with the moon phase for some odd reason. Any thoughts on this?

Pastor Swope said...

Thank you for the comment Anonymous,

Come to think of it I remember a comment on this by some of the elderly ladies at the church! Thank you.

I wonder what the moon cycles have to do with apparitions? Gravitational, electric, or just a part of residual memory of the spirit itself?

I would bet that it has more to do with affecting our ability to perceive them rather than the activity of the spirits themselves.

Perhaps the lack of ambient lighting makes them more perceptible to the human eye.

cryptidsrus said...

Good post as always, Pastor...

Since you are a movie buff, (which I sort of am too)---

This reminds me POLTERGEIST---remember? The developer had bulldozed over the graves and removed the headstones. Causing of course the famous shenanigans.

All we need at Asbury now is the great Zelda Rubinstein saying "Go into the light!" and a piece of raw steak moving around of its own volition and causing supernatural damage to a guy's face. That, and Heather O'Rourke (may she rest in peace!) saying "They're heeeeere!!!".

If that had an Indian burial site, all hell would have broken loose...
Don't mess with people's graves, folks.

Pastor Swope said...

Thanks for the comment Cryptidsrus,

It's been so long since I've seen that movie that I forgot they bulldozed it and removed the markings. I just remember the house was built over a Native American graveyard. To tell you the truth I could never sit through the whole movie in one setting it freaked me out a bit. (perhaps since I am 1/8th Native American)

You are right though, never mess with burial grounds. My experiences while working at Erie County Memorial Park a few years ago verified that. I'll be writing about that shortly.

No animated trees or glowing Televisions to another dimension though. Just the normal paranormal weird and wacky... ;)

Anonymous said...

I think it's so cool you are open to the paranormal. I have really enjoyed reading your blog and posted about the Asbury Church ghosts on my web site, (with full credit to you of course). Hope you can stop by and visit sometime!