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Faithful son leaves $2 million to small rural church

A rural church in Western Pennsylvania has inherited $2 million from a former church member. A UMNS photo courtesy of Hopewell United Methodist Church.

A UMNS Report
By Kathy L. Gilbert*

Dec. 11, 2008

John Ferguson was a simple man. He drove an old pickup truck, lived in a trailer without running water and kept to himself.

It came as a bit of a shock, then, when the 71-year-old farmer died and left more than $2 million to a small rural United Methodist church that his mother faithfully attended before her death in 1983.

Everyone at the church knew someday the family’s inheritance would come to the church, but no one knew how much money was involved, said the Rev. Jason L. McQueen, pastor of Hopewell United Methodist Church in Blairsville, Pa.

“John was very frugal. He bought $200 cars when he could have bought a new Cadillac.”–Jim Ferguson, cousin

"We had our jaws in our laps for a couple of weeks," McQueen said of the 80-member congregation, which learned about the gift several months after Ferguson died in January 2007. The will had to go through the probate system before money was distributed.

John’s cousin, Jim Ferguson, was executor of the will, which he described as short and simple. "There was one paragraph that said everything should go to the church," he said.

"John was very frugal. He bought $200 cars when he could have bought a new Cadillac."

Both Jim Ferguson and McQueen have been overwhelmed by the media attention generated by the will since The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review ran a Dec. 7 article on the gift. Since then, requests for interviews have come in from news outlets such as "Good Morning America," local television stations and other newspapers.

"I know John would not have wanted all this media attention," Jim Ferguson said. 

Faithful son

McQueen never really got to know the infrequent church member but visited with him after he became ill and was hospitalized. By then, Ferguson was "nonresponsive."

McQueen came to serve Hopewell and two other rural churches in Western Pennsylvania seven years ago. "I was alerted to the fact that when John passed away, the church was going to get an inheritance. The rumor was that his mother left all her earthly belongings to John and instructed him to leave everything to the church after his death," he said.

No one really knows how much money Ruth Ferguson passed on to her son.

"The remarkable thing to me is the fact that all his mother’s will stipulated was that whatever was left of the family’s estate go to the church," McQueen said. "He could have spent it all and not gone against his mother’s wishes; instead he lived a very frugal life and he invested his mother’s money."

Ferguson's investments were good ones. "He was the kind of individual that just had that God-given ability to know how to invest money, and basically everything he did prospered," McQueen said.

His cousin was saddened at the thought of Ferguson living in a modest trailer when he could have invested some of the money in his own health.

"John was always willing to help," he said. "I’m sure that if I had asked him for anything, I would have gotten it the next day. All his neighbors liked him."

He remembers his cousin taking his mother to church every Sunday and picking her up after worship. "He didn’t attend too much, especially after his mother died," he said.

Seed money

McQueen said the church plans to keep the money in investments and use only interest income for ministries. While the money is not expected to change day-to-day church operations, some church leaders are bracing to receive requests for donations.

Hopewell has formed a committee to distribute the money. One of the first needs to be addressed is restoring local cemeteries—a cause that John Ferguson was passionate about.

"If he drove past a cemetery that was in bad condition, he would make a donation to have it cleaned up," McQueen said.

Another possibility is helping Hopewell become a "station" church—one that stands on its own and has its own pastor. "That dream has gotten a shot in the arm from the inheritance," McQueen said.

* Gilbert is a United Methodist Service news writer based in Nashville, Tenn.

News media contact: Kathy L. Gilbert, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

Audio: The Rev. Jason McQueen

“…he lived a very frugal life…”

“…instead of spending her money, he grew it.”

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