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West Virginia Church Now Home to "Armed Joy" Collective

West Virginia Church Now Home to "Armed Joy" Collective By Daniel Friend, Shepherdstown Chronicle

SHEPHERDSTOWN, WV — Shepherdstown’s Old Episcopal Church at 113 N. Church St. — arguably the oldest church in West Virginia — is now home to a group of young tenants calling it the Armed Joy Collective House.

Naming their home of two months after the 1977 anarchist pamphlet “Armed Joy” by Italian activist Alfredo M. Bonanno, the six collective house occupants hope to foster a sense of community and self-sufficiency in Shepherdstown.

Collective house resident Patricia “Trish” Tanksley said the group has been given permission by the town’s Parks & Recreation Committee to plant community garden plots off Mill Street in the area of Cullison Park. The Community Garden Collective is encouraging residents to participate in the organic community garden, Tanksley said.

Some of the members of the collective house are anarchists, Tanksley said, quick to emphasize not everyone who lives there is an anarchist. She herself thinks “anarchy is very beautiful.” The “Armed” in Armed Joy does not refer in any way to guns, she said.

“Rest assured that we are not of the school of thought of violent uprising,” Tanksley said. “Anarchy is very misunderstood as being a destructive system that breaks everything down ... The idea is taking control of your own life. It’s not like we’re going to go out and force people to be joyful.”

The garden plots off Mill Street will be open from dawn to dark. The group hopes for donations of garden tools from the community and has four 4-by-10-foot garden plots tilled and available for $20 for the growing season. If there’s more interest, more gardening beds will be made. The group plans a Community Garden Collective meeting at 7 p.m. Tuesday in the Cacapon Room of Shepherd University’s Student Center on King Street.

“We want to let people know about ... the option of being self-sufficient by growing your own food,” Tanksley said. Those interested can contact the group at shepherdstowngarden@gmail.com

The church residents have a five-year plan for making the former worship space into a “community building,” she said.

“We are eventually going to use the space for workshops and art shows and music,” Tanksley said.

The group also wants to get a fleet of bicycles to loan out from the church as a means of alternative transportation for the town.

On April 30, the collective house plans to host author Chris Carlsson during a public talk in the church. Carlsson’s new book “Nowtopia: How Pirate Programmers, Outlaw Bicyclists, and Vacant-Lot Gardeners are Inventing the Future Today!” is set for publication in May.

A rich and varied history

Shepherdstown’s Capt. William Morgan presumably is among several Revolutionary War veterans buried at the Episcopal Cemetery on Church Street.

Historians can’t say without a doubt that he is there, as there is no known tombstone for Morgan (1723-1788). As legend has it, his grave is under the east chancel of the Old Episcopal Church at Church and High streets.

The first church building in Shepherdstown, The English Church built of logs, is said to have stood there about 1745, according to the Historic Shepherdstown Commission’s publication “See Shepherd’s Town III.” In 1769 the log building was replaced by a stone church, Mecklenburg Chapel. Trinity Episcopal Church retains ownership of the cemetery.

The Asbury United Methodist Church was the last congregation to worship there and sold the building to Princess Street resident Carlos Niederhauser in December 2006. He then applied to convert the structure to a residence and restore it.

In the past year, the church building has been the subject of hearings at the Planning Commission, Landmarks Commission and Board of Zoning Appeals. Niederhauser is renting the church — which he has divided into two dwellings — to the six residents, who hail from Shepherdstown, Frederick, and Pennsylvania.

A lawsuit is filed; planning review set

High Street residents Maura and Allan Balliett have filed a lawsuit in the Circuit Court of Jefferson County, saying Niederhauser is renting the house “without the necessary building and use permits and certain agents of the Town appear to have knowingly permitted such violation.”

Named in the suit are the Shepherdstown Planning Commission, former planning and zoning officer John E. Mathews III, Carlos Niederhauser and Elizabeth Wheeler (as owners of the property), and “A, B, C, D, E, F, being unknown tenants who unlawfully occupy the premises ...”

That the Corporation of Shepherdstown has approved multiple watertaps for the property has facilitated the unlawful use of the premises, the Ballietts contend. They want the Circuit Court to invalidate the building permit and water taps the Corporation of Shepherdstown issued to Niederhauser.

Town Councilman Stuart Wallace, also a member of the Planning Commission, said the Commission’s regular April 21 agenda includes a review of “the situation at that property relative to the Title 9 planning ordinances.”

Wallace said the agenda item is in response to the complaint that the property is not being used in accordance with the zoning ordinances.But the structure’s residents themselves “shouldn’t be a part of what the Planning Commission will take up on the 21st,” Wallace said. He lives with his family on High Street and said he’s not concerned about the anarchist facet of the collective house.

“As long as it doesn’t manifest itself in some bizarre way, I guess I really don’t care,” Wallace said. “I guess you can be an anarchist in America.”

Balliett said though the residents claim to subscribe to a benign form of anarchy, the associations with anarchy remain.

“It’s like yelling ‘Fire!’ in a crowded room and then saying ‘I didn’t mean that kind of fire,’” he said.