One of the oldest Episcopal churches in North Carolina, Calvary observed its bicentennial in 2020.
When Calvary was formed in 1820 in what was then known as Wadesborough, it was the fifth Episcopal church in the state, following only churches in Wilmington, New Bern, Edenton, and Fayetteville. James Monroe was president of the United States; there had been only four previous presidents and three of them were still living. Only 37 years had passed since the end of the American Revolution.
Two missionaries were primarily responsible for bringing the Episcopal faith to Anson County: the Rev. Andrew Fowler from Cheraw, S.C., and the Rev. Thomas Wright from the Diocese of North Carolina. Mr. Wright would, in 1821, become the church’s first rector. He is credited with the formal organization of the church and with selecting the name “Calvary.”
Mrs. Effie McLaurin Shepherd was the first communicant of Calvary church, and Dr. Thomas Parke and Col. William Dismukes were the first delegates from Calvary to be seated at the Diocesan Convention.
Initially, the church met in the Wadesborough Academy, which was established in 1797 and was located near the present-day intersection of West Morgan Street and White Store Road. In 1831, the church occupied its own building at the corner of East Wade and Brent streets. That wooden building, which included a balcony for slaves, was consecrated by Bishop Levi Silliman Ives, who described it as “a neat commodious edifice which does much credit to the liberalism of the few Episcopalians in this place.”
The present church was built on the same site in 1893. It was designed by Englishman and parishioner John E. Hill, who based his plan on what he remembered of English country churches. Some of his descendants remain members of Calvary, where the Hill family reunion is held annually.
During the service of consecration of the new building, Bishop Joseph Blount Cheshire said of the facility: “The Rector and the people of the Parish have reason to feel deeply gratified at the completion of this beautiful church, which for the situation and necessities of the Parish, has not its superior in the Diocese for beauty and fitness.” The building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places as a “particularly sophisticated example of an English Country Gothic Revival church.”
The property was acquired by the church from parishioner Thomas E. Parke, who had bought it in 1826 from Moses and Lydia Boggan Coppedge for 5 shillings.
Calvary’s doors have always been open to everyone. While the attendance of slaves in the early days might well have been involuntary, there are numerous records in the parish register of baptisms, confirmations, marriages, and burials of “free colored.”
During the second year of the American Civil War, the Rev. C.T. Bland became rector. Bishop Thomas Atkinson and his family, who resided in Wilmington, took refuge in Wadesborough (the spelling was changed to Wadesboro in 1868) during the war. The village did not offer much safety; however, as the Bishop was robbed at gunpoint and the church’s meager treasury was stolen by troopers under the command of Union Gen. Judson Kilpatrick. Kilpatrick headed the cavalry wing for the army of Gen. William T. Sherman, which was on its way from Savannah to Goldsboro. Wadesborough was fortunate that it was not burned to the ground as was Columbia, S.C., although two Ansonians were murdered by the Yankees.
In 1920, Calvary celebrated its centennial at a service on Dec. 26. Instead of a sermon, Mrs. John D. Leak read her recently completed history of the church. The brownstone wall, which still defines the church property, was presented as a centennial gift from the women of the church “in loving memory of the faithful departed” during the past century. Mrs. Leak noted that the celebration was “everything that could be desired.”
While Calvary has had only two church buildings in its 200 years, it has owned three rectories, or church-owned homes occupied by the rector and his family. The first, believed to have been on Camden Road, was built in 1875. The second, on East Wade Street, was occupied in 1908. The third and current rectory, built in 1949, is on East Morgan Street.
In the mid-1930s, the new Parish House was dedicated in memory of James A. Hardison.
In 1987, the church dedicated a memorial garden between the sanctuary and the Parish House. The garden, which includes a columbarium, is being completely revamped for the bicentennial. The focus will remain on “The Crosses of Calvary,” a bronze sculpture by New Zealand artist Jim Wheeler, a former parishioner.
Based on available records, Calvary has been mostly without major controversy. Perhaps the most upsetting event in the church’s history occurred in 2003 with the election of an openly gay priest as Bishop of the Diocese of New Hampshire. While many churches left the Episcopal faith over the decision, Calvary remained steadfast as an Episcopal Church, but the turmoil cost the church its rector and a few very active and valued members.
In 2015, Calvary broke with tradition and singled out an individual member for special recognition. On Easter Sunday, the church celebrated “Lucy Davis Day” as proclaimed by Bishop Michael B. Curry. Mrs. Davis was honored for her more than 50 years of extraordinary contributions. She was named Senior Warden Emeritus and remains the only parishioner upon whom that title has been bestowed.
An updated history of the church, 200 Years at Calvary, was written by Penny Mills and Lynn Horton. The book features a narrative of the church’s 200 years and includes the Parish Register, a compilation of all baptisms, confirmations, and burials from 1840 forward. It also includes historic photographs and newspaper articles about the church.
By Fred Sparger
Originally published in Anson County Historical Society News, March 2020
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