- Associated Press - Sunday, January 22, 2017

HOLOPAW, Fla. (AP) - The Rev. Lee Hoffman’s church has no congregation - or roof, for that matter - but trying to finish the structure has kept the 92-year-old preacher going for the past quarter-century.

For years, he’s sat atop his green John Deere tractor, as passersby have stopped for a photo with the ornate roadside sign that proclaims the “Jesus Miracle Chapel.” The sign, considered a landmark on a rural stretch of U.S. Highway 192 in Osceola County, twinkles at night beneath spotlights in the small town 15 miles southeast of St. Cloud.

Hoffman may never see the church’s completion, as Osceola County is now considering a plan to demolish it. County staff says the chapel is unsafe, and building officials have recommended the forlorn building be razed. Commissioners are set to take up the issue at their Feb. 6 meeting.

“I built everything here myself,” said Hoffman while perched atop his mower. “You don’t just come and say ‘that’s Jesus’ chapel’ and then tear it down.”

If commissioners decide the chapel should be leveled, a county spokesman said Hoffman, lives month to month on Social Security, would be on the hook to pay for the demolition costs.

The elderly preacher, and his friend Mark Lund, are asking for more time in hopes of raising about $125,000 to make roof and carport repairs to comply with building codes.

Lund, 58, owns a cleaning company in Sebastian, which is about 55 miles away, and used to pass by the chapel sign on trips to his campground at Suburban Estates. Curious of the sign - and the neglected building - Lund stopped one day and met Hoffman, who spoke of his elaborate plans for the church and his dreams of it hosting more than 200 worshippers for services.

They grew close, and Lund later became Hoffman’s caretaker, overseeing his finances and helping the elderly man continue his dream of completing the chapel.

“This is his whole life; this is all he knows,” said Lund, who visits Hoffman at least twice a week. “Can you imagine taking it away from him?”

The church came onto the county’s radar in 2012, when the building department received a complaint from a neighbor who deemed it an eyesore, records show.

It sits on about five acres in a far flung corner of Osceola County. From the street, sizable palms are marked with No Trespassing signs, and yellow caution tape stretches across a carport.

Hoffman lives in a double wide trailer on the east end of the property, which is appraised at about $120,000. From his front door he overlooks a charred mobile home - torched by an angry former tenant, he says - adjacent to the dilapidated church. The chapel hasn’t had a roof for years.

Lund blames Hurricane Charley and financial troubles for the chapel never reaching completion. As Charley ripped across the state in 2004, it took down the 100-foot long concrete block walls of the church. Hoffman rebuilt them himself to conserve cash, but still spent the remainder of his life savings on the property.

Hoffman sold a Boca Raton home in 1991 for $107,000, records show, and used the money to purchase the land in Osceola County from a farmer.

Lund said Hoffman, a former aluminum worker, can’t afford additional expenses and feared if a lien is placed on the property, the elderly man would become homeless.

“Is that what we do in America to our preachers? No, that’s not right,” Lund said.

Hoffman has never had a congregation, but has preached around the globe, he said. He keeps a plastic bag full of hundreds of photos depicting his journeys, including baptizing folks in the Jordan River, visiting the Holy Land and praying at a foreign prison.

He also has early photos of chapel, back when U.S. 192 was just two lanes.

But county building officials say construction stopped in 1998, and they concluded in 2012 that the building isn’t safe for occupants.

“In light of the conditions found on this property, I would recommend that this building be declared an unsafe structure and that steps be taken to have the property demolished as soon as possible,” building official Robert Deatherage wrote.

With time, Lund thinks the problems can be corrected.

Lund briefly began a fundraising effort last year and said he reached verbal agreements with workers to fix the carport and the fountain in front of the church. He planned to move onto the roof, but was set back when the county said he no longer would be issued permits because it took too long for work to begin.

“If I’m not allowed to get permits, then I can’t raise money,” Lund said. “We’ve been pushing, and we’re going to keep pushing.”

He added, “I’m going to keep fighting them.”

___

Information from: Orlando Sentinel, https://www.orlandosentinel.com/

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