Nearly a half-century ago, the smoldering embers of a rural church gave birth to a legend—a legend that has since been passed down among the residents of Mason County, Illinois. The church’s former preacher, it is said, was buried in the nearby cemetery under a tree, where he could forever tend his flock. Anyone brave enough to walk to the back of the cemetery and knock on the tree would be treated to the sound of the preacher’s voice calling out from the grave.
Mason County was carved out of Tazewell County and established on January 20, 1841. According to Pioneers of Menard and Mason County (1902) by T.G. Onstott, the land around Bishop-Zion Cemetery was not settled until 1840, when a man named A. Winthrow built a cabin there. Peter Himmel, A. File, Henry Bishop, and Stephen Hedge followed.
There are at least two dozen descendants of Peter Himmel buried in Bishop-Zion Cemetery. Ultimately, however, the cemetery and nearby village came to be named after the Bishop family.
Henry Bishop, we are told by the Portrait & Biographical Record of Tazewell & Mason Counties, Illinois (1894), was brought by his parents from Hanover, Germany to St. Louis, before ultimately settling on pristine land in the heart of Mason County. According to the Portrait & Biographical Record, “He was a member of the Evangelical Association… and aided in building Zion Church.”
His son, John H. Bishop, was a prominent member of the local community and owned a grain elevator. John H.’s wife, Maggie, was the daughter of John Bowser, who is buried in Bishop-Zion Cemetery.
Zion Church evidently was built sometime between 1855 and 1885. According to Chad Lewis and Terry Fisk, in their Illinois Road Guide to Haunted Locations (2007), the church was removed from the deed to the property in 1955, leading them to believe that it burnt down prior to that date. However, there is no evidence that any parishioners died in the fire, as legend maintains.
Locals, drawn by the cemetery’s unique history and its remote location, have visited this spot for many years, but the tale of the immolation of Zion Church is not the only story. Some visitors report hearing the laughter of children—particularly of adolescent girls—dancing in and out of the nearby woods. Moreover, anyone who enters the cemetery through its white gates will be greeted by an icy chill that seems to follow them throughout the grounds.
The most prominent tale is that of the preacher’s grave. Like the person interred in the alleged witch’s grave of Chesterville Cemetery, this individual’s resting spot is marked by a tree. Teenagers dare each other to walk to the back of the cemetery at night and knock on the preacher’s tree. Only a few are brave enough to make it, but those who do are supposedly rewarded with shrieks from beyond.
Like many rural cemeteries, Bishop-Zion has attracted its fair share of legends, but its historical background is what makes this one unique.
- Lewis, Chad and Terry Fisk. The Illinois Road Guide to Haunted Locations. Eau Claire: Unexplained Research Publishing, 2007.
- Portrait & Biographical Record of Tazewell & Mason Counties, Illinois. Chicago: Biographical Publishing Co., 1894.
- Onstott, T.G. Pioneers of Menard and Mason County. By the author, 1902.