That is the story of two church buildings.
One is in rural Florida, on the finish of a sandy street close to the Georgia border, in a clearing on an oak ridge the place the first sounds are bushes rustling and birds chirping.
The opposite is within the coronary heart of St. Augustine, throughout the road from the city sq. the place trolleys roll by with clanging bells and tour guides telling vacationers in regards to the metropolis’s historical past.
One is a purposefully plain construction, constructed within the Nineteen Fifties void of all ornamentation. The opposite is a stupendous outdated constructing, famend for its 28 stained glass windows, one a signed Tiffany.
One doesn’t use something past the human voice to supply music. The opposite has a 401-pound bell in its tower and a strong pipe organ in its sanctuary.
One has a dwindling congregation of about 17 members — most tied collectively by blood or marriage — who earlier than COVID had been holding providers on the primary Sunday of each month. The opposite has a rising congregation of about 1,000 members, holds a number of providers each Sunday and is speaking about increasing to a different campus.
In some ways, these two church buildings — Pigeon Creek Primitive Baptist and Trinity Parish Episcopal Church — are separated by greater than 90 miles on a map. However they’re related in a single important manner past Christianity: the timeline of Florida historical past.
Each church buildings are celebrating turning 200 this yr.
They had been established in 1821, the year the Spanish officially handed Florida to the United States government.
This, in fact, means they’re nonetheless younger in comparison with the Catholic church that’s throughout the sq. from Trinity Parish in St. Augustine. Cathedral Basilica, constructed within the 18th century, was established in 1565, making it the oldest Christian congregation within the contiguous United States.
However these two church buildings in Northeast Florida have their place in state historical past. Contained in the chapel on the state capitol, there is a plaque that describes Pigeon Creek as “Florida’s solely identified Protestant church when the territory grew to become part of america in 1821.” And on the outside of Trinity Parish, there is a plaque that notes, amongst different issues, it’s “the oldest Protestant church constructing in Florida.”
So on this Easter Sunday — one which comes after a tumultuous yr of pandemic and politics — it looks as if a becoming time to inform the story of two, 200-year-old church buildings.
To get to Pigeon Creek Primitive Baptist Church, it’s a must to drive about as far north as you may in Northeast Florida, nearly to the St. Marys River.
For those who’re heading north on U.S. 301, you go thus far north that you simply move an indication that welcomes southbound drivers to Florida. In the days before Interstate 95, this was one of the primary entry points to Florida. There was a welcome station the place vacationers might drink some orange juice whereas choosing up maps and brochures.
A few mile east of this freeway, head down a sandy street, passing a quail looking protect and rural houses.
After a few third of a mile, the street dead-ends with a clearing. On a number of acres of white sand in the midst of the stay oak, pine and cedar bushes, there’s a massive cemetery and a small church. To say the church constructing is modest is an understatement.
It’s a block constructing painted white. It doesn’t have a steeple outdoors or a cross inside. There are 13 home windows, none manufactured from something apart from clear glass.
On the within, there’s little greater than wood pews on a concrete flooring, a easy wood altar and, just a few days earlier than Easter, a desk with some flowers on it.
“We really feel just like the constructing itself is only a constructing,” stated church clerk Myra Shuman, explaining among the Primitive Baptist traditions. “It’s not truly a church till the members are there.”
Shuman, 67, can hint her household tree again by way of among the close by gravesites — a number of of her ancestors had been the church’s ministers — all the way in which to one in every of her ancestors being right here on Jan. 7, 1821.
That’s the date of the church’s first service, held below a brush arbor — principally 4 posts and a roof manufactured from branches and brush.
“Since Florida was nonetheless a Spanish province on the time, technically what they did was in opposition to the regulation,” Shuman stated.
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There have been 13 individuals there that day, the 12 unique members of the church and a 78-year-old Baptist preacher who based church buildings throughout Georgia after which Florida.
A North Carolina native, Isham Peacock fought within the Revolutionary Conflict and late in his lengthy life grew to become an influential Southern preacher. By all accounts, he was fairly the character. He refused to evangelise in church buildings with members who had pledged abstinence from alcohol. Within the e book “The Baptist River: Essays on Many Tributaries of a Diverse Tradition,” John G. Crowley writes that when Peacock was 100 years outdated, he nonetheless was preaching and ingesting whiskey from a hole cane “each to recruit his flagging power and to exhibit the bounds of Christian liberty in regard to the ‘creature.’”
After beginning Pigeon Creek, Peacock moved on. The brand new church stored assembly below the comb arbor. There are church minutes going again to these early providers. And in 1822, the minutes present that the church added a brand new member.
“It says a black man of brother John by the identify of — it is laborious to learn the identify, but it surely seems to be like Rau — got here ahead and joined the church,” Shuman stated. “That’s all it says. The notes miss a lot.”
Twenty years later, there is a associated observe, this one saying that Black members needed to start out their very own church.
By this level, Pigeon Creek had constructed a log construction for worship. It will definitely changed it with one other constructing within the Wiregrass Primitive Baptist tradition. Unpainted wooden, with three doorways. One for males, one for ladies, one for guests.
These outdated buildings usually had holes within the wood flooring that had nothing to do with custom. They had been there, Shuman explains, so the lads — and among the ladies, too — who chewed tobacco might spit by way of the holes.
That little wooden church stood for almost a century. Then, within the Nineteen Fifties, they’d an issue with sand fleas. To attempt to do away with them, some members lit some brush on fireplace and put it beneath the sting of the church.
“I don’t know whose shiny concept that was,” Shuman stated with amusing.
The church caught fireplace. The one out there water close by was a hand pump to a 100-foot nicely. The pump remains to be there at the moment. The wooden church, as you would possibly guess, will not be. It burned down and was changed in 1956 by the block one. When it was constructed with its concrete flooring, another affiliation church buildings thought Pigeon Creek was getting a bit of snooty.
Whereas it has the three doorways, the custom of separating the women and men is amongst people who have passed by the wayside. However others stay.
They consider the one true mode of baptism is by immersion. Most members had been baptized within the St. Marys River, though that has gotten tougher in latest instances with boats and jet skis. And earlier than COVID, each few months they might collect within the church and do what Jesus did on the final supper — washing of the toes.
Their hymnal consists of solely phrases, no notes. The songs, handed down from era to era, contain a music chief getting issues began, then others becoming a member of in.
Standing in the midst of the church just a few days earlier than Easter, Shuman and Teresa Jackson open worn hymnals to a favorite, “The Parting Hand.”It’s a song they usually sing at a big annual meeting in the fall that brings back members who have moved away. It’s a reminder that you never know who will be gone by the next time they gather.
They canceled that meeting last fall because of COVID. And while they’ve had some informal gatherings — mostly outside and, in a way, almost reminiscent of the open-air gatherings of 200 years ago — they haven’t returned to the monthly services inside the church yet.
Jackson is the daughter of John Robert Nelson, the church’s last pastor.
She says her daddy’s final wish was simple: Try to keep the doors open.
“He said, ‘If only a few remain, God will still be with you,’” she said. “And he said God would either raise up a new minister among us, or he would deliver one to us. It might be one year, or it might be five years. But you’ll know him when he walks through the door.”
That was 20 years ago. They’re still waiting.
They have kept opening the doors, reading some scripture, singing songs, having a word of prayer. And this Easter, while they celebrate in a variety of places — Shuman says she and her husband, Larry, likely will go to Fernandina Beach at sunrise — they will remember the past and pray about the future.
“We do have a next generation, but there’s not many of them,” Myra Shuman said. “We are worried: Is there enough to keep it going?”
Finding your way to Trinity Parish is easy. Finding a parking spot might be challenging.
Follow the signs leading to the Plaza de la Constitucion, touted by St. Augustine as the oldest public space in America. Trinity Parish is on the south aspect of the well-known plaza, between St. George Avenue and a Wells Fargo financial institution with outdated Woolworth’s door handles.
Earlier than giving a tour of the church, Father Matt Marino suggests taking a stroll.
Trinity Parish’s lead pastor, an Arizona na got here from Texas just a few years in the past. However he clearly is aware of and loves the historical past of this Florida church. As he crossed the cobblestone and headed south on St. George, he defined that the church’s roots truly predate 1821 — and return to 1763, the Church of England and a 20-year interval of British occupation that resulted in 1784.
“When the Spanish got here again, they made all of the Protestants convert or go away,” he stated.
Most selected the latter. They took the clock and bell out of the tower, the pews and altar out of the sanctuary, they usually left. However some remained. The a number of households that stayed stored their prayer books. And till 1821, they stored saying their prayers of their houses.
That summer time Spain and america made the switch of the territory official, exchanging flags July 10 in St. Augustine and July 17 in Pensacola. Andrew Jackson, who had been appointed short-term governor to supervise the switch, resigned and was changed by William Pope Duval.
In St. Augustine, the city leaders instantly held a gathering and determined to put in writing to Charleston and say they wanted “an academy, a library and a Protestant church.”
Marino doesn’t know precisely how shortly they received the primary two. However he is aware of that Andrew Fowler, a 61-year-old missionary, arrived in early October — and the subsequent day held Trinity Parish’s first official service.
Rev. Fowler later wrote: “On Saturday, October seventh, agreeable to the discover given the day earlier than, I carried out divine service within the outdated authorities home, the place I had quite a few, respectable, and attentive viewers, however the illness, and terrible scenario of the inhabitants.”
The “illness” the church’s first pastor referred to was the Yellow Fever.
100 years later, when Trinity Parish was celebrating its centennial, town and world had been attempting to get better from one other illness, the 1918-19 pandemic.
So within the lifetime of a 200-year-old church, what we’re coping with now hardly is new. It is one thing that has occurred each 100 years.
Marino stopped a pair blocks south of the place Trinity Parish stands at the moment, in entrance of an indication for Nuestra Senora de la Soledad — Our Woman of Solitude, Church and Hospital.
That is the place the Protestants worshiped throughout these 20 years within the late 1700s. They took what the Spaniards had constructed, transformed it into St. Peter’s Church and added a bell tower. When the Spanish returned, they took down the church, brick by brick, and the stone was used to construct a brand new parish church — Cathedral Basilica — on what had been the homestead of John Forbes, the Church of England vicar.
Marino tells all of this for a motive: When Forbes’ son grew to become town’s first American mayor, he gave the Protestants the positioning of the Catholic bishop’s home.
That’s the place Trinity Parish sits at the moment.
Strolling again towards the church, Marino pointed throughout the sq. towards the Catholic church.
“For those who take the tour of the Basilica, they may inform you that we constructed on the positioning of their bishop’s home and they want their land again,” he stated.
Two acts of Congress declaring that the land belonged to the Episcopal Church — together with two centuries of passing time — have made this once-heated authorized battle the form of factor that the present pastor of Trinity Parish and rector of Cathedral Basilica needle one another about.
Worship started within the Trinity Parish church constructing in 1831. However there weren’t any home windows put in till 1834. The present construction, inbuilt 1902, incorporates the unique constructing and is filled with colourful home windows, most famously one made by Louis Comfort Tiffany.
Whereas there are millions of Tiffany home windows all throughout America, there are solely about 40 identified to exist that had been signed by him. And but when this one was put in right here, Marino says, “individuals hated it.”
A few of that stemmed from the subject material: An angel speaking to Cornelius, a Roman army officer.
“It isn’t essentially the most dramatic topic,” Marino stated. “And it doesn’t match any of the opposite home windows within the church. So individuals checked out it and stated, ‘It’s ugly and it doesn’t match.’”
Now it’s a beloved a part of the church’s magnificence, a first-rate instance of Tiffany’s signature model — a gentle and lifelike really feel that comes from layer upon layer of glass.
And at the moment it additionally feels becoming as a result of when a church turns 200, it has layer upon layer of historical past. That actually is true of Trinity Parish.
If these unique coquina partitions might discuss, they’d inform tales from the 1800s of the women of Trinity Parish evangelizing the realm’s Cheyenne warriors. One in every of them, David Pendleton Oakerhater, went to Oklahoma and have become the first Native American Anglican in the Episcopal calendar of saints.
There’s the story of how on the finish of the Civil Conflict, two males who grew up as boyhood pals, then fought on opposing sides, returned to Trinity Parish, with one surrendering to the opposite.
Seemingly each place in St. Augustine has some form of tie to Henry Flagler. Trinity Parish’s is a bit of totally different. Within the nineteenth century, he needed the land the place the church was sitting. The church refused to promote it to him.
“He was so indignant that he constructed that bell tower,” Marino stated, pointing throughout the plaza on the Basilica. “It’s about 2 ½ instances the dimensions of the unique English bell tower.”
Within the twentieth century, the church ended up in the midst of St. Augustine’s Civil Rights headlines. Whereas different space white church buildings remained segregated in 1964, Trinity Parish seated African-People in its pews — a call that ended up costing the longtime pastor his job.
It additionally was close to this time when the church’s old bell, put in within the tower in 1842, stopped ringing, silenced by termite harm to its wood cradle and wheel. For greater than a century, it had beckoned the group for greater than Sunday worship.
“Celebrations, emergencies, deaths and lives had been all marked by the ringing of the church bell,” Marino stated.
In 1971, Trinity Parish began utilizing a carillon, a set of digital bells. However final August the outdated bell was eliminated utilizing a crane, transported to Cincinnati, refurbished and returned to its tower in December.
On the primary Sunday in 2021, Jack Daly — a parishioner who rang the bell as a teenage acolyte within the late Nineteen Fifties — was given the distinction of pulling the rope once more, ringing the bell for worship providers that morning, kicking off a yr of “ringing in” the bicentennial.
The church is rising, sufficient that Trinity Parish is searching for land to start out a second campus. Earlier than COVID, providers usually packed its wood pews to their limits, which formally is 300. However even that could be a measure of how lengthy the present sanctuary has been there. As People have grown in dimension, the sensible capability of the sanctuary has shrunk to about 240.
There will likely be three providers on Easter morning. The church plans to make the most of overflow seating within the fellowship corridor.
For all of the contrasts between this church and one positioned close to the Georgia border, there will likely be similarities this Sunday, past the frequent celebration of Easter.
After the whole lot that has occurred up to now yr, we are inclined to ask: How can we get by way of instances like these?
For the parishioners of Trinity Parish and Pigeon Creek, the reply to that query will be discovered of their religion and their lengthy and winding historical past.
After the bell ringing at Trinity Parish, a number of news stories described it as the first Protestant church in Florida — which led one Occasions-Union reader to put in writing a letter to the editor pointing to Pigeon Creek Primitive Baptist and Jan. 7, 1821.
Strolling by way of the cemetery at Pigeon Creek, passing gravesites that inform generations of tales, Myra Shuman says merely that “it should not be a competitors.” It must be a celebration of all types of outdated church buildings right here and the way, in any case this time, they’re each related and totally different. They’re examples of what America has been celebrating for greater than 200 years, freedom of faith.