Once a church, always a church? Maybe, in the case of the Union Avenue United Methodist Church.
In 1912, when Lorman Dunn and her mother Lottie Hays donated their Union Avenue property for the Lenox Methodist Episcopal Church South, a clause in the transferred deed required "forever, in trust, that said premises shall be used, kept, maintained, and disposed of as a place of divine worship."
Since then, the property has been home to the Union Avenue United Methodist Church. With it currently slated for a new CVS pharmacy, however, the women's closest-known heirs, Laforest George and Melody George Logan, have filed suit.
"The language is very clear that it's to be used as a place of worship," said Webb Brewer, George and Logan's attorney. "It's an enforceable restricted covenant, and it seems pretty unambiguous to us."
The heirs filed the lawsuit in early November against St. Luke's Union Methodist Church, the congregation that Union Avenue United Methodist Church merged with earlier this year. The legal action comes at the tail of a months-long clash over the nationally registered historic Union Avenue property. The most recent decision, made by the City Council in late August, allows the pharmacy chain to open a store on the location and overturns an earlier rejection of the plan by the Land Use Control Board.
Brewer pointed out that representatives of the congregation have attempted to dismiss the clause, saying that the Methodist trustees inserted it themselves and that a sale can be approved with the proper permissions. But Brewer said the covenant is clear and that such interpretation is only considered in cases where language is ambiguous.
"I've seen a case that is very similar, with language almost identical to the one in this deed and a church wanted to sell the property," Brewer said. "As I recall, in that case, the court found that it was a valid covenant and prohibited them from selling it for a contrary use."
Memphis Heritage and others against the proposed CVS have expressed frustration that the congregation had ignored interest in the property by Redeemer Presbyterian Church. They also point to an agreement between CVS and the National Trust for Historic Preservation in which the pharmacy chain promised not to demolish any buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
A hearing on a temporary injunction against the proposed demolition will be held November 18th. From there, the heirs hope to win a permanent injunction, stopping CVS's plans for the corner of Cooper and Union for good.
"I think there's no question that CVS would be an enormous step in commercializing that area," Brewer said. "Churches are good neighbors. An all-night pharmacy is not going to be nearly as good a neighbor."