Church of the Week: St. John’s Episcopal Church, Part 2

St. John's Episcopal Church

St. John’s Episcopal Church

By Bill Segars, Guest Writer

Last week we learned about St. John’s early history, 1875-2006. By early in the year of 2006, conversation had begun between the Kelley family, the building owner, and a group in Highlands N.C. to relocate the building there. The Kelley family certainly had no responsibility to announce this to the townspeople of Walhalla. They didn’t need the building any longer, and the Highlands folks wanted it. So their negotiation was moving in that direction.

In the fall of 2006, about the time that I found the church, a local group that sponsors an annual Christmas tour of homes and buildings were looking around town for potential buildings to feature on the upcoming tour. They spied the little gray board and batten building sitting in the trees. The group, comprised primarily of ladies, thought this building would be nice to include on the tour. Jack Kelley’s son, Harry, was contacted with the request of including his building on the tour. It was during this conversation that the possible upcoming move was mentioned.

If I haven’t learned much in my life, I’ve learned not to cross a group of little ladies when they make their minds up to do something. Either help them or get out of their way, they are going to make things happen. Harry Kelley realized this also, and became very helpful with the groups interest. The editor of the local paper, The Keowee Courier, also noticed their determination and jumped on the bandwagon by putting the word out that the little church may be moved to Highlands N.C.

Concern over the potential loss was so wide spread over the small town that arrangements were made very quickly for the Kelley family to donate the building to the Town Of Walhalla. The main stipulation was it would need to be moved; yes, taken apart and moved again. The town was glad to accept the building, but due to funding, they made it real clear that the funds needed to move and renovate the building would need to be raised outside of the municipal budget. In other words, tax dollars would not be used to renovate the church.

Christmas of 2006, at the open house tour, is when I got to know the people involved in “Save Our Church”. This was, in the beginning, a loosely formed group consisting of Anna Zelaya, Betsy Grewe, Duane Wilson, Tracy Towe, Nancy James, and led by Maxie Duke. The group may have been loosely formed in the beginning, but they never took no for an answer. They held quilt raffles, pancake suppers, and any type of fund raising technique one could dream up. Most importantly, they brought awareness to the community the importance of saving this building. Very soon, the entire community realized this importance and most every civic club showed signs of their willingness to help. With $35,000 in hand the building was moved on March 18, 2009 to its new home in downtown Walhalla on Kaufmann Square.

With the building sitting on Kaufmann Square under a tarp, with no roof and no money to proceed; the leadership reigns were passed from the “Save Our Church” group to Walhalla Partners for Progress (WP2). This 501-3c organization was in a better position to raise the money needed to complete the project that had originally been a dream of a passionate group of ladies. As money was being raised several “house-keeping” ADA code compliance issues were dealt with and the official name of St. John’s Episcopal Church was changed to Old St. John’s Meeting House. Guidelines were established for the use of the Meeting House as a public venue for the residents of Walhalla.

As fund raising continued, enough money seemed to be in hand to begin putting the building back together. Trehel Corporation, a design/build construction company based in the upstate, volunteered their services to assist in moving the project forward. In this day-in-time, completing a worthwhile project is not always as easy as having the desire and passion to do it. Plans need to be drawn, codes need to be met and bids need to be received when public dollars are involved.

From a unity of a town standpoint, this restoration project was truly an amazing venture to watch. I was fortunate to be able to follow this project from the beginning, through the setbacks (which are too numerous to mention), to the dedication service on September 20, 2014. That’s 125 years and eight days after its first service was held in 1889. The willing spirit that the town showed by giving of its money and time to see this dream become a reality, was truly refreshing. From the students at the Hamilton Career Center’s Carpentry Class that built the duplicated pews to the many that bought colored glass windows, pride in unity of one goal was always obvious.

The Old St. John’s Meeting House that now sits at 200 South Catherine Street, in downtown Walhalla, will serve as a testimony to the citizens of the late 1800s that sacrificed to build the original building. Not only that group, but the citizens of 2014 can be remembered for the next 125 years for the sacrifices they made to maintain the history of the building for following generations. I realize that Walhalla is a long way from Darlington, but if you are ever near Walhalla, the inspiration that you’ll feel while visiting the Old St. John’s Meeting House will be well worth your trip. You may even feel like bringing that inspiration home with you, we have some old abandoned buildings also.

Bill Segars has a strong love and appreciation for history, having grown up on a farm in Kelleytown on land that has been in the family since 1821. He uses his 40-year building career to combine with his love of history to develop a passion for historical restoration. Segars was able to find, photograph and research more than 750 religious edifices throughout the state. If you have comments or questions, please feel free to contact him at: billsegars@gmail.com.

Author: Duane Childers

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