A re-enactment and remembrance|Christ Church kicks off 170th celebration tonight

Published 12:00 am Sunday, November 1, 2009

“He just spoke to me,” Jim Miller said.

Miller was talking about the Rev. Henry Sansom, who was rector of Christ Episcopal Church for 38 years. Sansom died in 1903, so he didn’t audibly speak to Miller, but Miller was intrigued by the minister’s portrait that hangs in the parish hall. It’s softer than the photograph of the man. Miller thought Sansom looked interesting, and he knew he had to have been greatly loved to pastor the church for so long.

That’s why Miller chose to portray the reverend in a service tonight in Vicksburg’s oldest public building, constructed in 1839  — 170 years ago.

Email newsletter signup

Sign up for The Vicksburg Post's free newsletters

Check which newsletters you would like to receive
  • Vicksburg News: Sent daily at 5 am
  • Vicksburg Sports: Sent daily at 10 am

Miller bears a resemblance to Sansom — maybe it’s the goatee — and his interpretation of the man will provide him a chance to give an overview of events during Vicksburg’s turbulent years following the War Between the States — that’s when Sansom came to Vicksburg — past the end of the 19th century.

Sansom was born in Nottingham, England, and came to the United States in 1840 when he was 19, a year after the cornerstone of Christ Church was placed. He was educated in New York, then moved to Houston, Texas, where he was ordained to the ministry in 1849. He later served Grace Church in Canton, Miss., then went to Christ Church in Mobile at the outbreak of the war in 1861. At the conclusion of hostilities, he came to Vicksburg.

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

He assumed leadership of a congregation still smarting from fear and destruction. The rectory had been destroyed, and the church badly damaged by the shelling. In 1863, following the surrender of the city, a priest had prayed for the wrong president — Lincoln instead of Davis — and several women in the congregation had walked out, only to be banished from the city by the Union commander. Feelings probably hadn’t changed when Sansom came, for Vicksburg was under harsh military law.

Sansom led his flock through many turbulent times — the overthrow of the carpetbagger government, the yellow fever epidemic, political scandals, economic downturns — situations not unlike today, and Miller thinks Sansom must have been a dedicated man of God. In his portraits, Sansom looks sternly British — Miller speculates that he probably never fully lost his accent, that he “spoke Southern British.”

If you go

Christ Episcopal’s 170th anniversary celebration begins tonight and runs through Nov. 8. Events are free and will take place at or start from the church at 1115 Main St. Call 601-638-5899.

• Tonight — Re-enactment of the Rev. Henry Sansom, rector of the church for 38 years, by Jim Miller, 6 p.m., followed by ancient evening prayers and hymns and period-era refreshments.

• Monday — Church tours, 10 a.m.-noon; neighborhood “All Souls” walking tour conducted by Dave Benway and concluding with a reception at Duff Green Mansion, 7 p.m.

• Tuesday — Driving tours of the Christ Church neighborhood conducted by Benway, 10 a.m.-4 p.m.; tours leave on the hour.

• Wednesday — Church tours, 10 a.m.-noon, chapel open all day; healing service, 12:15 and 5:30 p.m., in the chapel.

• Thursday — “The Rector’s Wartime Experience,” lecture by Terry Winschel, Vicksburg National Military Park historian, 6 p.m.; cultural and period music, 7:15.

• Friday — Church tours, 10 a.m.-noon.

• Saturday — “The Art of Pilgrimage: Illuminated Journey,” a two-part presentation by the Rev. Brad Berglund, 10 a.m.-noon and 1-3 p.m.; lunch and dulcimer concert by Virginia Monsour and friends, noon-1 p.m.

• Nov. 8 — Holy Eucharist, “Re-inventing Worship” and “Pilgrims in the 21st century,” with Berglund and the Very Rev. Chan Osborn de Anaya, 10 a.m.

One story Miller discovered about Sansom was the morning when several finely dressed women entered the sanctuary — ladies he didn’t know — and he also noticed an uneasy stir among the congregation. At the conclusion of the service, he met one of the visitors and inquired if she had perhaps come from a distance; was she visiting the city? No, she said, she wasn’t from out of town. She lived at a “boarding house” at 15 China St. Perhaps the reverend might want to come for a visit. Of course Sansom recognized the address, that of a famous bordello, so he suggested that maybe it would be best that she visit him. The ladies continued to worship at Christ Church occasionally for a number of years.

The membership list of Christ Church in its early years reads like a virtual who’s who of Vicksburg citizens. Among the original pew holders was Dr. William T. Balfour, and of those attending was Emma Harrison Warren, who became Mrs. Balfour after her first husband’s death. Mrs. Balfour kept up a steady correspondence with her sister-in-law, and often she referred to events at church.

One day, in 1847, when she went to visit friends on Fort Hill, she saw a man wrapped in a black cloak standing on the very brink of the precipice; it was the Rev. Patterson, her pastor, and she wrote, “I like him exceedingly. He is a very good Christian and his sermons are well-written but unfortunately badly delivered. He uses beautiful language, his pronunciation is perfect.”

Patterson died in the 1853 yellow fever epidemic and is buried in the garden behind the church. Taking his place was the the Rev. William Wilberforce Lord from New York, and though he was “a beautiful writer and a good speaker,” she feared he would have difficulty replacing Patterson. She described Mrs. Lord as very stylish, but felt she was “not exactly suited for a clergyman’s wife …. She evidently feels that she has sacrificed a great deal in marrying a clergyman,” and that sometimes she showed a “dash of pride in her manner” that would not make her popular.

Mrs. Balfour had been requested in 1850 by the pastor to decorate the church for Christmas, as he had not been pleased with earlier endeavors. She did such an outstanding job that many praised her, but others were jealous, especially after Patterson thanked her from the pulpit.

“What do you think was the result?” Emma wrote. “A whole possee took dreadful offense….”

Elizabeth Eggleston was another leader among the women of Christ Church, and she was outspoken in both deeds and words. She was one of the early members of the church, and when it was decided to rent pews (as was the custom in many congregations), Mrs. Eggleston objected. She really had no say, but legend states that she voiced her opinion by going each Sunday and sitting with the poor in a section reserved for those unable to pay.

During the military occupation, Mrs. Eggleston, a widow, began her own version of what might be called a jail ministry, visiting the incarcerated and acting in their behalf by writing letters and doing other deeds of kindness.

Her thanks was to be arrested and banished from Vicksburg by the Yankee commander. Eventually, after much pleading and pressure from a number of people, he relented, offering to let her return if she would renounce the Confederacy. That she refused to do. In 1895, on her 88th birthday, she celebrated by walking from her Farmer Street home to Christ Church where she had worshipped for 50 years. She had been a symbol of the finest of Southern womanhood.

Such episodes in the history of Christ Church intrigue Jim Miller and spark his interest. Miller, who has been a communicant of the church since 1971, has been junior and senior warden, a member of the vestry, and is now a verger — “the guy who does all the things that aren’t necessarily outlined,” such as putting on ceremonial garb and leading the congregation in processions. It’s only ceremonial, but Miller said it has its roots in medieval times.

In his daily life, Miller is an electrical contractor, quipping, “I try to brighten peoples’ days,” and “they get a charge out of me.” He freely admits, “I’ve been a show-off all my life.”

Having participated in local theater for years, he’s used to changing roles, and that’s what he’ll do this evening. In a serious vein, he’ll appear as Sansom, looking over his church after all these years. Miller will take the opportunity to tell of some of the church’s history and some of the changes that have occurred.

“Will he like what he sees?” Miller asked, then answered: “He will absolutely love it.”