It’s a colonial-style brick church with tall pillars and Georgian windows in downtown Leroy.
Seated on a stool in the church basement, Pastor Emeritus Sharon Bianchi answers questions about the spirit world from visitors and congregation members. Are there guardian angels? Is there such a thing as a bad spirit? And this one, about why a heated room might suddenly feel cold.
“Well, it could be because the AC kicked on," she said to congregation members' laugher.
Bianchi explained there are electromagnetic fields. Spirits can generate both heat and cold. But if a spirit emerges from a lower energy field, the room where it is present can inexplicably grow cold.
Such discussions are common at the Crumbaugh Memorial Spiritualist Church, one of the few remaining free-standing spiritualist churches in America. Members come here to pay homage to what they call the “Infinite Spirit,” and to receive messages from the spirits of relatives and friends who are deceased.
“God is the highest source, the infinite spirit and there is continuation of life after death, there is a place we go after we die," said Bonnie Crosier, a longtime church member. "We don’t just die and that’s it. We go back to our original state, which is spirit, and we continue to live.”
The church's sanctuary looks like that of many mainstream Protestant denominations. A cross that says “God, Love, Light, Faith” hangs above an altar. There are hymns, a sermon, a reading from the 23rd Psalm, and the recitation of the famous Prayer of St. Francis.
“One thing spiritualism does do is adapt truths from all religions," said Bob Bianchi, who co-pastored the church for many years with his wife.
“Truth is truth and whether it’s from another religion or not, it still expresses the truth of who we are as spiritual beings." he added.
Spiritualists have no set dogma or doctrine and no hierarchy, but they do have beliefs and a set of principles.
“It gives a person their own ability to perceive God in their own perception instead of a set of rules and regulations to accept or not," Bianchi said.
One belief is that energy can be marshaled for physical, emotional and spiritual healing.
To the strains of soft instrumental music, congregation member Joan Travis comes forward. A healer places his hands above her head and onto her shoulders, takes her hands into his and stares for several minutes into her eyes.
“There’s usually a feeling of warmth from the healer’s hands." Travis said. "I have been healed and done healings. I feel it in different degrees at times, depending on the person. You feel a connection with the Spirit, like you’re really connecting with God at that point.”
Another main part of the service comes when the Bianchis act as mediums. They sit with eyes closed trying to determine if any spirits are attempting to send messages.
For this part of the service, I’m asked to turn off my tape recorder to safeguard privacy. The Bianchis describe the experience afterward.
"Sometimes it’s image projection, like a moving picture in the mind playing out that we can relate to this person [seeking a message]," Bob Bianchi said.
And sometimes it's a message Sharon Bianchi hears in her mind.
"I can hear what Spirit says and Spirit tells me," she said.
One woman in the congregation receives a message from a spirit Sharon Bianchi describes as resembling a benevolent Aunt Bea-type figure like the character on the old “Andy Griffith Show.” There’s a message of gratitude sent from a spirit to another woman.
“The people that come are the ones putting that energy thought out there of who they would like to come through and visit with them," she said.
"It doesn’t necessarily mean that’s the person who will come through, because if there is someone who has a message for them and wants to deliver that message, that’s who will come through."
The Bianchis trained for several years to be mediums at the Morris Pratt Institute in Milwaukee. Both were raised Catholic and say they began feeling connections to spirits early in life.
Bob Bianchi says he became a true believer when his life was saved during a fire fight in Vietnam by figures that were there, and then not.
The Bianchis say they do not offer bad news, give advice, or suggest, for example, the date a person might have an accident, or die.
“The reason we don’t is because we do have free will," Sharon Bianchi explains, and that means a situation could change at any time.
“All messages that we give to people are designed to be healing in some manner. We don’t give people bad news, that’s not what it’s about," her husband adds.
The Spiritualist Church has been a part of Leroy’s landscape since 1927 when it was built through a bequest from a wealthy landowner, J. T. Crumbaugh, after a lengthy legal battle within his family over his will.
Crumbaugh and his wife Elizabeth were devout spiritualists. They became interested in the practice after their infant son died. They told others they received messages from their son as he grew into adulthood in the afterlife.
The Crumbaughs also funded a library and local history museum in Leroy.
There is fellowship at 11 a.m. each Sunday at the Spiritualist Church, with services beginning at noon. The Bianchis are now retired from fulltime ministry, but still occasionally lead services.
Sunday worship currently is conducted by guest leaders each week, and energy channeling is also still available.
Travis, the woman who sought healing on this Sunday, said the services provide her with a lift that lasts through the week.
“They gave me a message today that the mother- father God in paradise is proud of me and sent love and blessings," she said. "It’s kind of an affirmation. You feel that what you’re doing is right. It feels great.”
Church members say theirs is an optimistic view that life does go on. As Pastor Bob Bianchi puts it, there is no need to fear death. This life is but one part of an eternal adventure.