SCENIC, S.D. – The saloon is long empty. The roadside jail cells, rusted and worn. Even the swing sets peek from behind knee-high brush after decades of neglect.

This tiny exclave just west of South Dakota’s badlands is officially an old ghost town. But its future is shrouded in new mystery.

“We don’t know what’s coming,” said Kathy Jobgen, 50, the only employee remaining at the only business still in town: the U.S. Post Office.

The town of Scenic — once a popular stop for people traveling to Rapid City from the badlands to the east or Pine Ridge Reservation to the south — was recently purchased by an unusual buyer for less than $800,000. The Iglesia ni Cristo church, established in the Philippines in 1914, bought the town and surrounding acreage from longtime resident and rodeo legend Twila Merrill, who had gathered the land bit by bit over several decades.

The church isn’t divulging its plans for the property. A person answering the phone at its offices in Daly City, Calif., said he couldn’t share any information, as did staffers of church spokesman Bienvenido Santos.

“They’ve got a non-disclosure agreement, and I’m a signatory to that,” said David Olsen, the real-estate agent who represented Merrill’s family in the sale.

He was only comfortable offering bits of detail — the saloon and other boarded-up buildings still standing along Main Street will stay — but he said he couldn’t give specifics.

“The gas station will be open for business again soon enough,” said Olsen, of Coldwell Banker in Rapid City. The church purchasers are “interested in it being a benefit to the community.”

The church, which translates in the language Tagalog to Church of Christ, has been steadily spreading west since it was founded in the Philippines by Felix Manalo, a former minister of the Seventh-day Adventist Church who experienced what he claimed to be a call similar to those of ancient prophets. He died in 1963.

Often described as one of the fastest-spreading international religions, its foothold in the Philippines grew from about 1.4 million followers in 1990 to 1.7 million in 2000, according to the 2011 figures released by the National Statistics Office in Manila.

Iglesia ni Cristo rejects the Christian doctrine of trinity and believes Christ is one of several prophets. The church is focused on the end times, believes Manalo is a prophet and considers the Catholic Church apostate.

The church’s backing has been viewed as crucial in Filipino presidential elections, and it has been accused of organizing bloc voting in that country. It also is known for its secrecy, rarely commenting on its activities.

The church has expanded to more than 5,000 congregations in the Philippines, and more than 600 abroad in more than 60 countries and territories, according to the Manila Times. It has held neighborhood events to praise the hospitality of the communities where it has purchased land to build homes and churches, including Los Angeles, Orlando, and Union County, N.J.

Other congregations are established nationwide in more than 40 states, according to the church’s website. Dozens are listed in California, 10 in Washington, 12 in Texas and seven in New York.

Jobgen said she’s hopeful the church will make for a good neighbor.

“I’m excited about the possibilities,” said Jobgen, who also runs the Jobgen Ranch with her husband.

What happens next is not known publicly. Olsen said the property will be cleaned of dilapidated buildings and overgrown brush, but he said the buildings at the town’s heart will remain. Not even Merrill and her family know more than that, he said.

“They do not know the plans,” he said. “They’re as eager as everybody else.”