House of the Holy: Mike Tyson’s home becoming a church

Tribune Chronicle / R. Michael Semple Nick DeJacimo of Howland, pastor of Living Word Sanctuary Evangelical Church, talks about transforming the former Southington mansion of ex-heavyweight boxer Mike Tyson into a house of worship.

SOUTHINGTON — What once was a symbol of decadence — hot tubs, indoor swimming pool, mirrors on the ceilings and four tiger cages — the former luxury home of ex-heavyweight boxer Mike Tyson will soon represent virtue.

The 25,000-square-foot house on state Route 534 that also once belonged to former Trumbull County Commissioner Ted Vannelli and former infomercial mogul, Paul Monea, the man behind the former Tae-Bo exercise craze, will open later this year as the place of worship for members of Living Word Sanctuary Church.

When the church took control in January 2015 of the 60-acre property, the grass was wildly overgrown and trees had grown through a wrought iron fence that enclosed the land that once belonged to Iron Mike.

“This property was untouched for 10 years. You had so much grass you could have sold it for hay,” said Nicholas DeJacimo, church pastor.

An immense amount of work has been done, mostly by church volunteers, to renovate the home into a church, including tree removal, exterior painting, new landscapinging and removal of the tiger cages to make room for a pavilion.

“He (Tyson) had four tigers here with a very high chain-link fence so they couldn’t get out,” he said.

In addition, a basketball court in the rear of the house has been improved for use by the church’s youth ministry.

The main sanctuary will be in a 10,000-square-foot room where the pool once was. It will have an area for baptisms, a pulpit and stage, pews and chairs. In addition, a fireplace there will be made into an indoor waterfall.

Other work inside includes creating a gymnasium and a four-bay garage will be made into youth classrooms and a nursery.

The house was built in 1979. In 1989, Tyson, then undisputed heavyweight champion of the world, bought the house for $300,000 in a sheriff’s sale after a bank seized it from Vannelli.

Tyson used the house when training at promoter Don King’s camp in Orwell. He made friendships with neighbors by chatting while jogging and playing basketball with area youngsters.

When Tyson’s sentence on a rape conviction ended in 1995, he came first to his Southington house.

When he went to sell the house, Tyson wanted $2.2 million, but sold it in 1999 to Monea for $1.3 million.

Before it was taken over by the church, the house was owned by Ron Hemelgarn, who purchased the property in a 2010 sheriff’s sale for a reported sale price of $600,000. The structure and land was donated and transferred from Hemelgarn to the church.

“Us getting this is a miracle.We had to pay the real estate and back taxes. So for $50,000 we acquired the entire property. It was basically donated to us because the former owner needed to write it off. I tell the congregation God literally gave us this,” DeJacimo said.

When DeJacimo said he first saw the inside of the house, he likened it to something John Gotti, former New York organized crime boss, would have loved.

But the most wild rooms were the main upstairs bedroom and bathroom, DeJacimo said.

“There was a jacuzzi, two baths, mirrors on the ceiling and all the walls. We heard there were some crazy parties here … We will turn this into a room where women can get ready for a wedding. There will be a sitting area and place for their gowns,” he said.

The second floor will also have offices and meeting rooms.

Said co-pastor Mark Cohen, “Our plan is to have everything opened by December with a grand opening celebration in time for the holidays. Everything is getting into place.”

The reason for the expansion is because the church is growing.

“We needed a larger place,” said DeJacimo, adding the new campus will have more parking, larger classrooms and all-purpose room.

The property extends west to U.S. Route 422.

“This is pretty amazing. Not that many large ministries have something like this. This got dropped in our lap. I tell everyone this was meant for us … When you see it, it is starting to look like a church,” DeJacimo said.

Church members have been meeting at the YWCA in Warren. Before the Tyson house became available, there was a plan to build on a 40-acre site on state Route 46 in Bazetta.

While it will be a church campus, the Tyson intrigue will always be there.

“People have always been so enticed about Mike Tyson. We have bikers and people stopping by constantly wanting to see the inside,” he said.

But despite being a tourist attraction, DeJacimo said plans are to glorify the Lord and lift him up. “He literally gave us a free campus to do whatever we want. We will use it to glorify him,” he said.