150th Anniversary|St. Alban’s has made it through highs and lows

Published 12:00 am Sunday, October 26, 2008

History doesn’t always repeat itself. Just ask Betty Biedenharn — she can cite an incident from her years working in the ladies organization at St. Alban’s at Bovina.

“We wrote to St. Alban’s in New York asking for a donation, but we didn’t hear from them,” she said.

A century earlier, the Rev. James Angle Fox had better luck. He was challenged by a vestryman to get the first $100 in efforts to rebuild the church, so Parson Fox wrote to the New York congregation suggesting a donation “for the sake of the name.” He immediately received $100.

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St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, 5930 Warriors Trail in Bovina, will celebrate its 150th anniversary Saturday and Nov. 2. Activities will include a Confederate encampment throughout the weekend, on Saturday a 6 p.m. lighting of the luminaries in the sanctuary and on Sunday a 10 a.m. church service followed by dinner on the grounds and period activities. The church’s phone number is 601-636-6687. Visit St. Alban’s Web site.

That was for the second St. Alban’s. The first resulted from an invitation by Cornelia Sthreshley to the Rev. Henry Sansom of Canton to come to the village of Mount Alban in Warren County, near Bovina, to preach. He accepted and, in the fall of 1857, an Episcopal service was held at Mount Alban Baptist Church. He agreed to return in about six weeks at which time the church, with 17 members, was organized. Sansom preached a sermon each month at the Mount Alban school until a church could be built. In 1858, Peterson and Louisa Bass gave almost four acres and $5,000 was raised. First called the Church of the Nativity, then the Church of the Redeemer, the name St. Alban was decided upon, probably because of its location near Mount Alban and also for the first English Christian martyr.

Bishop William Mercer Green described the new building as unpretentious but beautiful in design and simple in style and concluded that after the first service in the new structure “a great dinner was served under the spreading trees.”

That was 150 years ago, and thus began a tradition at St. Alban’s that continues to this day. It’s only appropriate that the church’s anniversary celebration next Sunday, Nov. 2, will include dinner on the grounds.

“Our dinners on the grounds are famous,” said Betty Biedenharn, and often attracted hundreds of people. Though they were usually fundraisers, the one next Sunday is free. She expects the food will be just like in earlier days — good country cooking.

She can’t tell you how many dinners she has helped prepare and serve, or how many other activities she’s had a part in. She has taught Sunday school, sponsored the church’s youth group, served on the vestry and has been president of the ladies auxiliary, the ECW, several times. So have many others, she said, because “We all take our turns.”

Betty’s memories of St. Alban’s go back 67 years when she was a young bride and married Eric Biedenharn. In a way, she also married St. Alban’s, for she’s been there ever since. She had grown up in Holy Trinity and her husband in Christ Church, but as they planned to live on the farm near Bovina they chose to marry at St. Alban’s, which “the ladies of the church decorated for us. It was wonderful.”

“I’ve done my part to populate the congregation,” she laughed, for she has seven children — Ann, Betsy, Max, Eric Jr., Easy, Eva and Letty. They were all baptized and confirmed at St. Alban’s, “and when they’re all here with their families we take up several pews.”

At 87, Betty joked, “I’m happy to be here. A lot of my friends aren’t. They’re here, but they’re outside in the cemetery.”

Adjacent to the church is “the burying ground” where Malvina Folkes was buried May 2, 1860, at age 26. Her grave is unmarked. No doubt there are others unmarked, such as the Missouri Confederate soldier named Woodson who was interred there in June 1863. Many stones bear the names of early families in the community — Batchelor, Brabston, Culp, Goff, Cook, Maute, Hebron, Barr, Newman, Townsend and others.

Today, the immaculately maintained cemetery is operated with an endowment made by several families. It is so beautiful it has been used in a movie.

Of the founding families, only the Batchelors are still represented on the church rolls. Of the original 17, one was Ellen Noland Batchelor, the widow of Napoleon B. Batchelor.

There’ll be a service at the cemetery on Saturday, when luminaries will be placed on each grave and the roll will be called. The service will begin at 6 p.m.

The present church probably doesn’t resemble the original sanctuary, but the setting is the same — the edifice is on a slight rise, facing Warriors Trail, a driveway winding and circling beneath giant oaks and moss-draped cedars. The sanctuary was built in 1928, a gift from the Townsends who moved away after the War Between the States.

The 1870 building was a frame structure which was turned halfway around, bricked, joined to the new building and is used as a parish hall. Another addition was later built.

Nothing remains of the earliest church but the cornerstone and a round window made from pieces of broken glass, picked from the ruins and kept for sentimental reasons by Amelia Bigelow Barr following the war.

St. Alban’s, like several other rural churches in Warren County, was an innocent victim of war. Other than young men going off to fight, the first taste of hostilities in the community was in late June 1862 when Gen. John C. Breckinridge’s Kentuckians, the Orphan Brigade, camped on the church grounds. After the Siege of Vicksburg began in May 1863, Ohio troops appropriated the church “for military purposes.” They used it at first as a hospital and camped in brush arbors around the building, doing little damage other than slashing the bishop’s portrait and destroying his chair. Later, they used the church as a saloon and dance hall and then a butcher shop before destroying it during the military occupation. In 1868, Bishop Green described the site as “once beautiful indeed, but with nothing now to mark the spot but a heap of moldering and broken stones.”

In 1867, a few people met for a new start. And, in 1870, St. Alban’s reopened with 20 communicants and Parson Fox as rector — but without a building.

Like most other country churches, St. Alban’s has had its highs and lows, once declining to mission status but regaining its designation as a parish. Significant growth occurred in the late 1930s when the church bought a bus — perhaps the first church bus in the county — and Mrs. Alex Cook picked up adults and children on Sunday mornings for a nondenominational Sunday school. It was a time when money and gasoline were both in a limited supply, and many took advantage of catching the bus. A definite need was served.

Another high point was in the 1960s, when additional land was bought and a rectory was constructed. Last month the church installed a new minister, the Rev. Billie Abraham, the second female priest for the church.

Services next Sunday will begin at 10 a.m. and will be from the 1879 prayer book, everything as much as is practical “being just like it was back then,” Betty said. “The ladies will cover their heads and we can’t wear trousers — and as there were no women priests then, our rector will be a part of the congregation.” The bishop will preside along with the Rev. Chip Marble, a former bishop who grew up at St. Alban’s, and former Holy Trinity rector the Rev. David Elliott.

In 1870, Parson Fox predicted that St. Alban’s would rise from the ashes and ruins from the horrid scenes of 1863, and he hoped with God’s blessing that the church would “afford shelter and consolation to many in their journey through this ‘vale of tears’ ….”

His hopes and prayers have been answered.

Gordon Cotton is an author and historian who lives in Vicksburg.