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HISTORY & HOLINESS
SoVaNow.com / September 19, 2013The old church cemetery, mossy and dim, is a staple of Southern Gothic: a place where one can go to commune with the past, reflect on the mysteries of life, and revel in spiritual thoughts.
At St. John’s Episcopal in Halifax, the light shines a little brighter through the church graveyard now that work crews have removed a handful of trees that had uprooted headstones and graves. Adding to the effect, the church recently hired a pressure wash firm to cleanse the encrusted tombstones.
Volunteering to join the cleanup was the church rector, the Rev. Cleon Ross, along with several congregants. “We had a great time washing the gravestones,” said Ross.
Brightness is a watchword at St. John’s these days: the historic old church, Halifax’s link to the Colonial past, has undergone a major renovation unlike any since the graceful Greek Revival structure was erected in 1844. In fact, said Ross, this is the first real fix for many, many internal problems that have plagued the church physical plant for years.
“We really do believe this is to the glory of God,” the Rev. Ross, St. John’s interim pastor since July 2012, said of the renovations. “This church has been in the community since 1844, and we hope it will be here for the next 150 years.”
St. John’s will celebrate the building restoration with an open house event on Saturday, Sept. 28 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Mountain Road location. There will be tours of the sanctuary, parish house and cemetery, each of which have been shored up in ways large and small, noticeable and not.
Perhaps the most striking transformation is to the parish house, where the office is located and Sunday school classes are held. The drab, nondescript building has received a total makeover: new walls, ceilings, fresh paint and furnishings. The result is a warmly lit, inviting place for work and worship — much different than the cinderblock parish house of old, which was “just a disgrace” in Ross’ estimation. “No one is working in cement block rooms any more unless you’re in jail,” he said ruefully.
Aside from dozens of individual improvements — from classroom space converted into a chapel to the addition of a gas fireplace — Ross said he was intent on making the parish house fully handicap-accessible, a desire heightened by the difficulties the building presented for some of the church’s elderly congregants. “This is the 21st century, and for the church not to allow people come in the office and work with the priest in a handicapped [accessible] way is unacceptable,” he said.
“Essentially, we’ve redone that building from top to bottom.”
Improvements to the main sanctuary are less dramatic, but equally necessary, Ross continued. Entering St. John’s, one will find a new restroom off to the side, easily accessible, and the steep descent down the steps to the undercroft has been eased with a wider and higher stairwell. Elsewhere around the upper level of the main church building, structural flaws have been addressed with the addition of a new support beam, altar rail and flooring. The heavy new fixtures exposed the weakness of the ceiling over the undercroft; that basement area, too, has been ripped up, reinforced, resurfaced, rewired and repainted.
This week, said Ross, the church finished off a few final touches and awaited delivery of new tables and chairs.
“There’s no part of the building that hasn’t been touched,” he enthused.
To complete the work without draining its reserve funds, St. John’s has drawn on the talents — and the wallets — of its members. The Chastain Home, to cite just one benefactor, donated the upstairs bathroom, a much-needed convenience for elderly congregants. Other members have made similar donations. “People are being very generous within the congregation,” said Ross. “We’re pleased the building is in A-1 shape.”
The renovation reinforces Ross’ approach of revitalizing the church through revised programming, a new hour of worship (now 10 o’clock Sunday mornings) and person-to-person interaction (“We don’t wait for a call or an invite,” he said of his own role in fostering a sense of church community. “Fellowship shouldn’t be an add-on, it should be part of our intentional life”). In lining up support for the investment in the physical plant, Ross has appealed to the faith — and to the pride — of the St. John’s membership.
“This facility is not equaled by any church in our region [of the Dioscese of Southern Virginia],” said Ross, a former dean for Episcopal churches from Boydton and Danville. “There is not another one as beautiful and as good as the one we have here. And they [the members] care about these buildings; they’re good stewards of what God has given them. And they care about people.
“God is in the building, by the way people have responded,” he said.
St. John’s Episcopal is the Town of Halifax’s second oldest church — the top honor goes to Halifax United Methodist, its neighbor on Mountain Road, which occupies the building that previously housed St. John’s forerunner institution, St. Marks. Other churches in the county, too, own buildings that date back before 1844. But St. John’s parentage, as part of Antrim Parish, gives it a reasonable claim to having the longest history of any church in the county.
Antrim Parish was consecrated by the Right Rev. William Meade in 1752, around the time Halifax County was organized. Antrim Parish, named after a parish in Northern Ireland where the Church of England reigned, covered an area that today includes Pittsylvania, Henry, Franklin and Patrick counties. The Colonial-era church was served by a succession of rectors; one of the early leaders who figures prominently in church lore is the Rev. Charles Dressler, who in 1828 appealed to the vestry to build a new “Protestant Episcopal Church” in Halifax. That church became St. Marks, which later evolved into St. John’s. Dressler was not around to see the construction of the towering stone structure on Mountain Road; he left years earlier for Illinois, where he befriended and married a future President and First Lady: Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln.
The history of the church from 1844 forward is notable for periodic brushes with great events of American life — whether wars, politics, or social movements. According to local historian Chip Pottage (who wryly describes himself as a “very passive” member of St. John’s), it’s a myth that General Robert E. Lee traveled to St. John’s to worship there. Yet it is unquestionably true that upon surrendering in Appomattox, Lee dispatched a young officer, John Wise, to ride off to inform Confederate President Jefferson Davis of his army’s fall. En route to Danville, where Davis and his government had fled, Wise stopped for the night at St. John’s, where an immediate relative, Henry Wise, presided as rector. “There’s no question about that,” said Pottage.
The St. John’s cemetery, the lone church graveyard in the Town of Halifax, is a resting place for soldiers of America’s wars since the Revolution; by Pottage’s count, there are three members of Pickett’s legendary charge at Gettysburg who are buried in back of the church. Other notables: a descendant of Thomas Jefferson; a nephew of Jefferson Davis who was captured with the fugitive Confederate leader in Georgia; descendants of the great Indian chief Powhatan; and “people who brought baseball south during the Reconstruction period,” noted Pottage.
“There’s 200 years of Virginia history buried there, and it’s all like a textbook if you study it,” he said.
The present-day shape and membership of St. John’s, however, probably owes more to the man who served its longest stint as rector: the late Rev. Alfred Martin, Fred to his friends. Martin was rector at St. John’s from 1965 until his retirement in 1993. The community of worshippers who rallied around the church in those years even today forms the bulwark of the St. John’s congregation.
Martin was recruited from St. Paul’s Episcopal in Kenbridge, arriving in Halifax in 1965 with his petite wife, Diane, and four small children, the youngest an infant boy born that very same year. The new preacher, with his University of Virginia pedigree and commission in the Army Reserve, and his attractive family captured the attention of a rising generation in town. Among them was Bill Confroy, a banker and a Catholic, and wife Jane, raised up at Beth Carr Baptist in Halifax.
Jane Confroy traces the start of her migration to St. John’s to a visit by Dr. Nat Wooding, St. John’s assistant priest and an irrepressible figure in Halifax. Wooding dropped by the Confroy home, “gave us a prayer book and invited us to go to church,” she recalled in an interview this week. “Fred had just come in and he had this passel of children, and we were thinking about having a passel of children ourselves. It was just a good fit.
“And we’ve been very happy there since.”
Kenneth Powell, a fellow resident of Mountain Road, became a member of St. John’s at the insistence of his wife, the late Jo Tucker Powell, known by the congregation as among of the church’s most faithful members (and one of its most astute; she oversaw the cemetery committee, a job that demanded financial savvy and attention to detail.) Kenneth Powell started out at St. John’s tagging along for services with his wife, even though he was a Baptist — “but I wasn’t a very good one.” Eventually, he came around: “it meant so much to her, I think it rubbed off on me,” he said.
In the Rev. Martin, Powell would find a fast friend: “I thought so much of him I didn’t particularly care what he said. We didn’t always agree.” Fred Martin “was just a plain ordinary person, and a heck of a nice guy. He liked to help people.”
Diane Martin, now living in Richmond, has fond feelings for the Powells and other longtime members who remain among the family’s closest friends. (Of the nine Martin children, none is still living in Halifax). It was a natural decision for the Martins to move to Halifax to assume leadership of the church. “It was a really strong church all the way through the years Fred was there,” said Diane Martin. “It was one of the prime churches of the dioscese.” The vestry extended the invitation after sitting in on a service in Kenbridge: “They invited us up and that was that. I think he was the first person they called, and the last person they called.
“He was a good old boy, a nice U.Va. grad, Virginia Seminary — I’m sure they thought,” recalled Diane Martin. “I don’t know if they knew anything about his liberal thoughts.”
Famously, the Rev. Martin chose the occasion of the 1970 baccalaureate service at Halifax County Senior High School to deliver a sermon inveighing against the Vietnam War and voicing support for integration. The address touched off an uproar. (It also drew the notice of the Richmond newspaper, which reprinted the speech in its entirety on the editorial page). “He got scathing letters,” many penned by military veterans offended by the pastor’s advice to graduates that they explore their options for peaceful civil disobedience. It wasn’t only veterans who were outraged: “He got his discharge papers from the Army about a month a speech,” she said (it was an honorable discharge).
It was what followed in the wake of the speech that revealed the quality of the congregation, Diane Martin continued. “We got calls from the Klan. ‘The finest people in the land were the Ku Klux Klan.’ That went on for months until Fred would say, ‘This is my cheery greeting of the day from the Klan’.” One day, a car pulled into town with Klansmen inside. “I had a rifle pointed out the window on the top floor and Fred had a gun below.”
Between his controversial stance on Vietnam and full-throated support for integration, the Rev. Martin risked offending more conservative members of the congregation, “but when the Klan started in on him, they pretty much rallied around him. They weren’t going to be bullied,” said Mrs. Martin. Other brushes with the heated issues of the day revealed things about the individuals in the church that Martin said she never expected: “It surprised you in town would be against things” — and later come around to a different point of view.
The glue that held the church together was the sense of shared community — and the work her late rector put into tending to the spiritual needs of the flock. “I think it was all the pastoral help Fred gave to so many people,” said Mrs. Martin. “They were loyal to him.”
As St. John’s prepares to mark the renewal of its building later this month, the Rev. Ross says loyalty and community remain the church’s touchstones, as solid as the granite that rises up in the cemetery in back. When he first considered coming to Halifax to serve as interim minister “lots of people said to me, why are you going to Halifax? They are the most unhappy campers you can imagine” — a reference to old disagreements, common amongst many mainline denominations. “I have found it to be the complete opposite. It’s been one of the great joys of my ministerial life.”
Ross, who describes himself as a “a conservative kind of fellow,” chuckled at the memory of Fred Martin’s sermon on Vietnam — the two men knew each other well — and the Episcopal Church’s reputation for social activism. “It’s always been a church of social action. If you agree with the action, that’s good, but if you don’t agree with the action, that’s not so good.” Today, with a new palate of social issues to roil the landscape — same-sex marriage, the role of women in the priesthood, and others — Ross said there are stances “I may not like,” but the power of the Episcopal faith never wanes.
“We bring children up to be part of the body of Christ, and when we baptize them, they say they will bring that child up to value the dignity of the human person. The Epsicopal Church has always been about human dignity.” He sees the glory of God in the work of the congregation: “They care for each other, they reach out to each other, and they do things in the community that you never hear about…. They have been beyond belief as far I am concerned.”
And now, the same can be said for their house of worship.
(The public is invited to St. John’s Episcopal on Saturday, Sept. 28 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. to celebrate the church restoration and its history with tours of the sanctuary, parish house and cemetery. For more information, contact the church office: 434-476-6696. St. John’s Episcopal Church is located at 197 Mountain Road, Halifax, Virginia.)
Disclaimer: The reporter’s family attends St. John’s Episcopal.
CommentsThank you, Eva, for sending me Tom's article "History & Holiness." The story made me nostalgic for those long ago days with the wonderful people of St. John's and the Halifax neighborhood. Not the least of these, of course, was the McLaughlin clan!
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