You can see Corby Chapel from Amazonia Road in the northwest part of St. Joseph. It sits, brooding high on a hillside west of the winding old road, its mood partly shielded by a cover of sycamore, elm and cottonwood trees.
In early summer, the flowers blooming on the huge American linden tree in the front yard pervade the property with their hauntingly sweet smell.
The tree belongs, if one believes in Roman mythology.
The American linden, also known as the basswood tree, is a symbol of conjugal love and fidelity.
The Corby Chapel was built as a symbol of a woman’s dedicated love to her husband.
The story of Corby Chapel begins in 1870 with pioneering St. Joseph businessman John Corby nearing death. He told his wife, Amanda, that upon his death, he wanted to donate their land north of the city to the bishop of the St. Joseph Catholic Diocese for use as a Catholic cemetery. He also wanted her to erect a chapel in his memory on the site.
But a small chapel wasn’t enough for Mrs. Corby. She invested a then-astronomical $40,000 and had a large church built in 1871. It was an elegant structure. It was built in the shape of a cross out of white stone in an early English gothic style.
But no services were ever held in the church. In fact, it served more as a very expensive hot potato.
After its dedication, the chapel was deeded to Bishop John Hogan, who later deeded it to a religious order in St. Louis. It changed hands several more times among several dioceses before it was declared unsuitable property for a cemetery and returned to Mrs. Corby.
It was deeded out again, this time to the Daughters of Charity in 1898 to be used as an asylum. After a short time, that project also folded.
Then, in 1906, an agreement was reached between the Daughters of Charity and the Corby family to deed the chapel and its 10 acres back to the estate for use as a church.
But Corby Chapel soon proved to be too far out of the city for people wanting to attend services there. The roads leading to it were rough and hazardous.
So, it became a burial site for John Corby and 10 other members of his family. Two priests also were interred at the foot of the altar inside the church. In time, the bodies were removed and the chapel turned into a residence. Dr. Waldo Hartsock took up residence in 1944 and called it home for several years.
Corby Chapel became merely an old, haunted house after Dr. Hartsock moved away. For years afterward, kids would run past it and or use its driveway as a make-out spot. It was a target for vandals.
But today, the chapel is home to Jim and Dana Meers and their two sons, Jakob and Harrison.
“My first husband and I bought the house in 1986, and at first I absolutely hated it,” Mrs. Meers said. “I wondered how I was going to take care of it. But I’ve learned to love it over the years.”
Mrs. Meers said the place was dull and dreary when she first moved in. Thick, heavy curtains blocked most of the sun. What few rays pierced the darkness showed an impressive layer of dust.
“When we first moved in here, people told us it was haunted,” she said.
“They said there were flying Bibles and blood dripping down the walls. But they were only stories.”
Mrs. Meers said the real horror story of Corby Chapel is the remodeling expenses. The bills could turn any owner as white as a ghost.
“Whenever there’s maintenance problems it costs much more than for a newer house,” she said.
“The windows are not normal-sized, and everything has to be custom made. It’s registered with the Historical Society, but we can’t get a grant to restore it to its original state because it was a church.”
Not much is left to remind one that the home was once a chapel, save for its exterior appearance and the fact that angels remain painted on the walls in the attic, which used to be the sanctuary. The place is bright and cheery and full of children’s laughter.
“Basically, we just plan on upkeep and maintenance to get it into the ’90s, to make a modern home in an old shell,” Mr. Meers said. “We went house shopping once, but for the space we have we couldn’t replace it.”
The Meers also love the linden tree. They talk of when it will bloom as expectant parents anxiously talk about the birth of their child.
“Actually, there are three (linden trees) on the property,” Mrs. Meers said. “The one out front is the oldest in Buchanan County.”
“The leaves are pretty good size,” Mr. Meers said. “Once the trees are up you can’t see up here. It’s very, very private.”