A Filipino church called Iglesia Ni Cristo, or Church of Christ, is the buyer of 59 parcels of land in Scenic, paying $700,000 for the properties, Pennington County records show.

What the church plans to do with the nearly empty Old West town on the edge of the Badlands remains a mystery. The church hasn’t said anything about its plans for the property, and calls seeking comment from church offices were not returned.

Pennington County Sheriff Kevin Thom and county Planning Director Dan Jennissen each said their offices have had no contact from the church.

A variety of sources describe the church as a sect estimated to have nearly 2 million members in the Philippines, a majority Catholic nation, and millions more worldwide. Based in Quezon City, the largest city in the Southeast Asian island nation, the church was founded in 1914 by former Catholic Felix Manalo, and leadership passed to his son and now rests in his grandson, executive minister Eduardo Manalo.

The church’s website shows congregations in dozens of countries and 42 states. It includes a listing for a congregation meeting in Rapid City, but the phone numbers were no longer working.

The church’s United States office is in Daly City, Calif., a suburb of San Francisco, and there are about 60 congregations in California.

“But it is not numbers alone that make the INC such an influential church today,” according to a 2002 report from the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism. “The Iglesia commands strict obedience from its members. It votes as a bloc, and its leaders are wooed by politicians eager for support.”

The report describes the faithful as insular and believing that there is no salvation except through the Iglesia. It says church leaders have business interests in companies in the fields of education, medicine, media, manufacturing, construction and legal services. The church also has its own television broadcasting network.

Several Filipino news organizations have reported that the church broke ground in August on a 50,000-seat stadium outside Manila, the Filipino capital city. It is part of a complex called the Ciudad de Victoria that will also include a university, convention center, medical facility, housing and a chapel. The stadium is expected to open in 2014 for the church’s centennial celebration. 

The church’s history of building ornate temples in Asia, Hawaii and California doesn’t explain its interest in Scenic, the rural Pennington County town that made international headlines in August when Coldwell Banker listed the property as a whole town for sale.

Former resident Twila Merril had accumulated the property, nearly the entire town, over the years starting in 1963.

On the edge of the Badlands, the 46 acres includes a U.S Post Office land lease, the Longhorn Fuel & Food Convenience Store, the Longhorn Saloon, a museum, two homes and two jails. It was listed at $790,000.

Merril was unavailable Friday for comment.

Coldwell Banker Realtor Dave Olsen, who listed the property along with Realtor Joe Bennington, said he has signed a nondisclosure agreement and can’t talk about the buyer or the buyer’s plans.

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He said earlier this month that the buyer did not want to be revealed for a few months, until after some organizational and cleanup work had been done.

He said the buyer has hired private security teams to protect the property from vandalism and has restored power and phone service to the town.

Thom said he told Olsen he would be happy to meet with the buyer about their law enforcement needs, but has not been contacted and is maintaining the same level of patrols as before the sale.

Bennington told the Journal earlier this month, "It's not going to be an abandoned town. It's going to be fully functioning." He added, “They're going to do really positive things for the area and the community."

But no plans have been announced and there has been no activity in the county planning office.

“If they wanted to do even a church camp, they would need a conditional use permit,” county Planning Director Dan Jennissen said.

Contact Barbara Soderlin at 394-8417 or barbara.soderlin@rapidcityjournal.com.

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