American Renaissance Church and Museum AKA Midway Cathedral, formerly Holy Child of Jesus Church
913 Graham Ave
Windber, PA 15963
Roughly two hours east of Pittsburgh, a suburb of Johnstown, PA lays a quiet, humbled town of Windber. As we’ve made this trek before to visit a location down the street from the Holy Church of Jesus at the Grand Midway Hotel, we could see the clear separation of former glory from the booming mining days to the reinvigorated technology advances and increase in businesses throughout the outskirts of Johnstown. This church turned Anne Rice porcelain doll collection museum still holds a certain mining era, blue collar beauty. The church itself is quite an imposing site with a castle-esque appearance looming over the small town of Windber. If the ominous look isn’t enough, the paranormal activity that lurks in its walls is sure to throw the location over the edge in both creep factor and macabre intrigue.
The church itself was actually the fourth Catholic church constructed in the small town of Windber. As immigrants, predominantly Irish, flooded the area looking for work, a new congregation was built in 1921 to help grow the town and add to its quick population growth. To attempt to make this new populace at home, the church was constructed in a more of a classical medieval fashion with a bell tower overlooking the grand sandstone castle-esque structure.
Regularly packed to its fullest every Sunday and used as a local gathering spot for nearly 80 years, the church’s regular attendance and congregation declined with the dwindling town population in the late 1990’s. The last ten years or so of keeping its doors open showed little to no promise for growth and with a lack of funding and deteriorating of both the interior and the stone façade, the difficult decision was made to close the doors and put the church up for sale.
Even though the church was closed, the cemetery outback remained open to the public out of respect for those families which had their relatives buried there. Amongst the headstones of those entombed there are the additional tombstones of many famous writers, actors, and other well known historical figures including Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Oscar Wilde, Edgar Allan Poe, Mary Shelley, and none other than Bram Stoker.
As the religious sanctuary sat empty and began to fall into disrepair, water tearing through the roof, pouring into the steeple and nearly decimated the parish, a nearby hotel owner, Blair Murphy swooped in to purchase the property. He is the owner and operator of the close by Grand Midway Hotel and with a creative mind and uniquely positive and open perspective, he saw nothing but potential in the failing structure. His hope was to begin a revival of the building and save the beauty of the structure for the community and its inhabitants to cherish for years to come.
In addition to saving the historic value of the former church, Blair has also added even more history to the already intriguing past with artwork by the French American artist George Hetzel and awe inspiring collection of Anne Rice dolls. Hetzel managed to capture the beauty of the scenery and nature home to the rural wilderness of West Virginia before Windber was settled and began its mining industry. Blair hopes to rekindle the community’s original love for Hetzel’s artwork and imagery of the beautiful area. Similar to the artwork of the West Virginian, Blair’s collection of porcelain dolls also holds a unique draw to the building. These dolls are not just a unique collection but rather one that is personal and close to Blair’s heart.
When he visited Anne Rice’s Memnoch Ball late in 1995, Blair first experience this unique collection of porcelain dolls. More so, this event inspired him to uproot his life and head to New Orleans before finding a permanent home in Windber with his purchase of the Grand Midway Hotel. As Blair became aware of the Anne Rice doll collection needing a new home years later, destiny would have it as his story would come full circle.
The former caretaker of the dolls who displayed them in, none other than New Orleans, was looking for a new location to display them as they slowly but surely became packed away as time went on and as she found a new home in California with no location to show off their beauty. As luck or perhaps fate would have it, at this point Blair had just recently purchased the old church with hopes of turning it into an art gallery. As the doll collection went up for sale, his vision for the dolls and showcasing them for the world to see fit perfectly with the caretaker’s wishes. Included in the Anne Rice doll collection are a plethora of reminiscent dolls to Anne Rice stories and Dracula characters such as elegant Victorian vampires depicting Lestat, children in gothic dress similar to “Interview with a Vampire,” and even a combination of nuns that were specifically made for Anne Rice long ago.
These collections have inspired some of the events and fundraising efforts such as the DraculaCon Ball which help the local fire department. Local efforts and the special made nonprofit organization have all helped fund the reconstruction efforts of the church which was in desperate need for a new roof, solidified exterior wall enclosures, and even fresh and clean plaster and paint on the interior walls. The worst of the damage was inside the steeple which is harmed mainly due to the weather and lack of climate control inside the church.
With Blair’s vision for the location, artwork, and doll collection being quite ambitious, it’s also a wonderful and grandiose plan to showcase multiple facets all at the same time; the artwork, the doll collection, the church, and even the town of Windber, PA.
While the church stands without pews and with a damaged façade, there were no direct tragedies or tales linked to the church itself, but like most establishments like this one that are linked to religion also carry with it an undoubtedly layered amount of energies which tension to this day. Churches can be places of praise and celebration or, on the exact opposite side of the spectrum, a location of death and despair. Both of these extremes tend to leave an imprint in the ground surrounding the area, the creaky floorboards, and even the dilapidated walls. It’s also more than plausible to believe that there is some type of otherworldly energy linked directly to some of the different dolls in the museum and collection, especially those handmade and custom created to Anne Rice’s personal specifications.
There have been a multitude of stories of strange happenings throughout the church and grounds including phantom footsteps wondering about the wooden floorboards and whispers echoing through the open floor plan without any specific entity known for these occurrences. Odd shadows have been seen lurking out in the cemetery although it’s unknown whether this may be someone who was interred here, simply visiting with a strong tie to the church, or even some type of otherworldly phantom making themselves known to visitors.
Some other direct communication has been captured from others including intelligent responses from what appears to be a young girl who is drawn to this spot. Her identity has yet to be revealed but she has been known and recorded answering questions and responding to specific people, particularly females which would be no surprise if a little girl feels safer and more secure with motherly-type figures. Other occurrences, specifically thanks to technology like the Spirit Box, have intelligently produced the name of Mike which was repeated an undeniable 17 times! Another entity seemingly wandering this area is a former priest who watched over the church and property until his passing, so it seems it may be here still watching over this place that meant so much to him during his lifetime.
With a combination of history, energy, and (simply put) a fascinating past between the church, cemetery, and Anne Rice doll collection, it can be no surprise that there is a strange compilation of energies culminating in paranormal activity which attracts supernatural enthusiasts and history buffs alike. No matter the reason, the property and collections inside the church hold a strong amount of intrigue and this all helps the overall goal and high hopes for the church by the owner, Blair Murphy, as he attempts to showcase the doll collection, local artwork, and bring more visitors to the quiet town of Windber, PA.