Hiwassee property sold to Christian communal organization

Hiwassee property sold to Christian communal organization

Karen and John Burleson, Bruderhof members, live in the guest house at Laycock Alumni Center on the Hiwassee College campus. As many as 250 Bruderhof members may relocate to Madisonville in the next 10 years.

MADISONVILLE, Tenn. -- Eighteen months after Hiwassee College was closed, the 284-acre property has been sold to Bruderhof, an international Christian communal organization.

The purchase was finalized Nov. 30 for an undisclosed sum, said the Rev. Jason Gattis, chair of the Hiwassee College board of trustees. “Both parties have wanted to keep it as an undisclosed amount,” he said.

Representatives of Bruderhof, which means “place of brothers" in German, said they plan to refurbish the Hiwassee campus to operate a community of families with an elementary school and workshop.

“We’re passing on the torch for Christian values, guiding young people and raising children in the fear of the Lord, which is what we’re all about,” said John Burleson, secretary-treasurer for the newly named Hiwassee Bruderhof.

Hiwassee College was closed in May 2019 for financial reasons, ending a 170-year history as a United Methodist-affiliated private liberal arts school.

The purchase price was “enough to allow the college to take care of indebtedness and financial responsibilities,” Gattis said. The debts included $984,000 paid to Holston Conference for a 2014 loan and $3 million paid back to the USDA for a grant.

The college board was pleased to sell the property to a faith-based organization that would not destroy and rebuild but renovate existing structures, Gattis said. “If the college wasn’t going to be used as a school per se, the next best thing is for it to be used as a Christian community.”

Burleson, who has lived on the Hiwassee campus with his family and three other families since September, said Bruderhof has a history of establishing communities on former educational or religious campuses.
Jodie Burleson scrubs the floor of a campus house.

In addition to replacing numerous roofs throughout the aging Hiwassee property, the organization plans to repurpose three dormitories into family apartments, the science building into an elementary school, the library into a workshop, and dental classrooms into a child-care space, Burleson said.

“We see this as a long-term project to slowly create a church residential campus,” Burleson said. More members will arrive from Bruderhof communities throughout the U.S. in 2021. As many as 250 people may live on the Hiwassee Bruderhof by 2030.

Bruderhof has a 100-year history in the Anabaptist tradition. Total membership includes about 3,000 people in 28 settlements on four continents, seeking to live as early Christians by sharing income and work and serving others. The nearest Bruderhof community to Hiwassee was started in 2015 in Durham, North Carolina. Burleson arrived in Madisonville from a settlement in Chester, New York.

The listing of the Hiwassee campus was an opportunity to fulfill his organization’s desire to begin a new community in the southern or western part of the U.S., Burleson said.

“We were counting on God showing us the right place,” he said. “Meeting with local officials reinforced this was a good fit because everyone was so welcoming.”

In October, representatives of the Bruderhof hosted a reception in the college’s former alumni center to meet with United Methodist leaders, government officials, and campus neighbors. Bishop Dindy Taylor, resident bishop of Holston Conference, participated in addition to Madisonville Mayor Glenn Moser and Monroe County Mayor Mitch Ingram.

Also attending the gathering was the Rev. Charles Maynard, former Hiwassee College board chair. Maynard said the property purchase by Bruderhof is “a great end to the Hiwassee story.”

“We talk about resurrection, but we’re afraid to die institutionally,” he said, comparing Hiwassee College’s closing to local church buildings that fulfill their purposes for a season and then go on to be repurposed for new missions.

“You can’t have resurrection until that death occurs,” Maynard said. “I’m excited. I want to learn more about [the Bruderhof] when they’re here.”

Burleson said he understands why many alumni remain disappointed by the closing of the college. However, he said others have commented it’s better for the campus to be renovated for a new mission rather than deteriorate similarly to the former Tennessee Military Institute in nearby Sweetwater, Tennessee.

The property was sold “as is” to Bruderhof, Gattis said, “including anything left on the property.” Student transcripts were transferred to Tennessee Wesleyan University.

All other records, archives and historical items were removed prior to the sale. Some items were offered to museums or archivists, Gattis said. The rest is now stored in Holston Conference’s main office building in Alcoa, Tennessee.

The $984,000 loan repayment to Holston Conference will be returned to reserve funds, said Rick Cherry, treasurer.

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Holston Conference includes 853 United Methodist congregations in East Tennessee, Southwest Virginia, and North Georgia.



Annette Spence

Annette Spence is editor of The Call, the Holston Conference newspaper.

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