God’s house, not ours|Yokena Presbyterian to celebrate 125th Sunday

Published 12:00 am Saturday, November 7, 2009

“Aunt Pattie planted these flowers,” Josephine Alexander said as she gave a freshly picked bouquet, still wet with the morning dew, to Anne Newell some years ago.

Anne, a South Carolinian, had recently married into the Hyland family at Yokena and was on her first visit to meet the family of her husband, Sandy. She had often heard her new mother-in-law, Ceress, speak of Aunt Pattie.

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

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At Yokena, she had eaten from Aunt Pattie’s china, sat in Aunt Pattie’s chairs, had probably eaten food cooked according to Aunt Pattie’s recipes. When it came time to go, she told her Aunt Dee, “I think I’ve met everybody in the family but Aunt Pattie,” to which Dee Hyland replied, “Child, she has been dead since 1927.”

Aunt Pattie left behind something far more valuable than material possessions, for the Yokena Presbyterian Church, which she helped establish, is celebrating its 125th anniversary Sunday with dinner on the grounds followed by a service at 2 p.m.

If you go

Anniversary festivities at Yokena Presbyterian Church, U.S. 61 South, will kick off at 1 p.m. Sunday with dinner on the grounds followed by a celebration at 2.

Pattie Hyland Gould Hankinson certainly wasn’t the only founder of the church. In fact, it wasn’t even her idea. Yokena Church has its spiritual roots among the Baptists and Methodists.

It was in 1884 that the Rev. Charles Hyland and John B, Wright were at a revival at Redbone Methodist Church, sitting outside on a log talking, when Wright said he thought it would be a good thing to have a Presbyterian Church in the community.

Down the road south of Yokena, Pattie Hyland Gould, who later married Will Hankinson, was teaching Sunday School at Bogue de Sha Baptist Church, where she was content to remain until the idea of a Presbyterian church was broached and approved by the Presbytery.

She became enthusiastic; her heritage had been Presbyterian for generations. She gave land for the new church (part of the Hyland Spanish land grant), and she wasn’t shy about asking for donations. Even the railroad men who stopped at the Yokena station promised contributions of 50 cents a month, and Aunt Pattie wrote letters to Presbyterian congregations all across America seeking financial aid. Many responded with $10 contributions.

The building was designed by noted architect William Stanton, who charged $25. Built of cypress with an interior of beaded pine, it was completed in 1886 and has remained unchanged on its knoll by U.S. 61 other than an annex added in 1957.

The plans show that a steeple was in the original drawings, but Aunt Pattie nixed that idea. As a $45 option, it cost too much.

Preaching was once a month for years, but Sunday school was weekly. A variety of ministers preached, but two pastors served Yokena Church for a combined total of 94 years. The Rev, C.P. Colmery, who came in 1888, was preparing to celebrate his 50th anniversary when he died. Yokena’s most recent pastor, the Rev. David Daniels, who died a few weeks ago, agreed 44 years ago to serve Yokena until they could get someone. In the last few years, Mr. Daniels had grown quite feeble and had to sit to preach, which he did.

There were some very lean years when attendance dropped to five, and Bill Simrall, the only male member, would comment that services were attended by “this old rooster and four old hens.” The average age was about 86 — Miss Annie Grant at near 100 increased it significantly. Later, when attendance reached a dozen, Josephine Hyland Alexander was quick with a reminder that “Christ had only 12.”

In recent years the church has witnessed growth to 17 members, but an average attendance of 25 to 30. Sunday school classes are taught for children and adults, and the Rev. Michael Herrin of Port Gibson preaches at 9 each Sunday morning.

One thing the church didn’t have a shortage of for years was honey bees. In the 1930s, the late Wood Hall placed small hives out front, trying to entice the bees away from the church building, but to no avail. Siding was put over the apex, but the bees just got behind it. Finally, a few years ago, Sid Erwin got rid of the swarming critters.

In a small congregation, it is evident that each person has an important role. The late Susie Ogle is an example. For probably more than 30 years, she was treasurer. Though she was meticulous and frugal, she had an aversion to balancing the books. When she turned the job over to someone else, it was discovered that she was off only 28 cents in favor of the church.

Initial plans by the Mississippi Department of Transportation years ago to four-lane the highway is the main reason the church is on the National Register of Historic Places. Preliminary surveys showed the church in the way, so Mimie Miller of Natchez and Dee Hyland quickly prepared a presentation unanimously approved by the National Register committee. The highway was four-laned, but the church remained.

Stories abound about the church and its members. When the Rev. Charles Hyland died in 1936, his casket was placed in the parlor of the Hyland home, as was traditional with most country funerals. When the Rev. Colmery got there, he met John Leigh, about 4 years old, knelt beside him with thoughts of explaining heaven to a child, and asked, “Little John Leigh, do you know where Uncle Charlie is?” The child pointed at the house and replied matter-of-factly, “He’s in the living room, dead as a door nail.”

Patricia Simrall recalls a story told by her father, who was taking the offering when he passed the plate to the King children. David King was a little boy and he had a nickel. He looked at Bill Simrall, then at the nickel, back at Mr. Simrall, then at the nickel, repeating the episode several times before he kissed the nickel and dropped it in the plate.

Patricia has her own unique story — “very unique,” she said, “because I was old before I was baptized.” Her cousin Sonny Rule had brought water for the baptism that his mother had gotten from the River Jordan while on a trip to the Holy Land. At the proper time, Patricia went forward and stood before Mr. Daniels, and John Leigh Hyland went to the kitchen to get the silver baptismal bowl and some water. The bowl wasn’t there, so he came back, not sure of what to do. Meanwhile, Patricia stood there, getting a bit antsy, but recalls, “Mr. Daniels couldn’t hear, so he didn’t know what was going on, bless his heart,” and John Leigh went back to the kitchen and returned with a coffee cup of water — “very fitting for my baptism,” Patricia said. “Mr. Daniels continued with the utmost dignity, and I was just as baptized as if it had been a gold-plated bowl.”

Not only for the members of the church, but for the community and passersby, Yokena Presbyterian Church has been a beacon on the highway for 125 years where the word of the Lord is preached.

As Dee Hyland reminded, “It’s God’s house, not ours.”