A church building with history, but no congregation, moves to Chapel Hill

A crane carries away the cap on the steeple of St. Philip’s Church in Germanton. The Episcopal Church of the Advocate has no permanent home yet in Chapel Hill and hopes to begin holding services in the former St. Philip’s by next fall on land it owns off Homestead Road.
A crane carries away the cap on the steeple of St. Philip’s Church in Germanton. The Episcopal Church of the Advocate has no permanent home yet in Chapel Hill and hopes to begin holding services in the former St. Philip’s by next fall on land it owns off Homestead Road. rstradling@newsobserver.com

A handful of people came out to watch this month as workers dismantled the steeple on St. Philip’s Episcopal Church, a simple, white, wooden chapel that for 121 years has stood on the edge of this small community north of Winston-Salem.

Among them was the Rev. Lisa Fischbeck, whose Episcopal congregation in Chapel Hill will receive the dismantled building later this fall. The 9-year-old Episcopal Church of the Advocate has no permanent home yet and hopes to begin holding services in the former St. Philip’s by next fall on land it owns off Homestead Road on the north side of town.

But also standing in the driveway of the Baptist church next door to St. Philip’s were a handful of people who had fought, and failed, to keep the chapel in Germanton. John and Linda Woodard, who have lived two doors down from the church for 41 years, brought folding chairs and a camera.

“This is a sad occasion,” said John Woodard, 73, a retired archivist for Wake Forest University. “It’s like a wake, I guess.”

The hard feelings in Germanton are likely to linger a while over how the Episcopal diocese, based in Raleigh, decided to make use of a building that hasn’t had an active congregation in 32 years. The people of Germanton understand why a congregation would want such a beautiful building, but feel like a piece of their heritage is being uprooted and trucked away.

The Church of the Advocate didn’t go looking for St. Philip’s. The congregation bought a house on 15 acres in January 2011, with plans to tear it down and erect a new building that could serve as sanctuary, offices and meeting place. Members later decided it would be better for the environment if they turned the house into offices and meeting space and built a new chapel.

Then last fall, the Rev. Dr. Brooks Graebner at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church in Hillsborough suggested the church consider St. Philip’s. The diocese had determined that the local committee that had cared for the building since its congregation folded in 1980 was no longer active and that it would sell the property.

“Here is a building that was built in hopes that it would support a flourishing Episcopal congregation and here it has a chance to do that,” said Graebner, the historian for the diocese. “And I think that’s a beautiful way to adaptively reuse this building.”

Blake Moving Co. of Greensboro will move the 56-foot-long sanctuary of St. Philip’s sometime in early November, following a circuitous 126-mile route over rural roads to Chapel Hill. The steeple and the roof are going separately.

‘A mistake was made’

St. Philip’s was completed in 1891 in the Carpenter Gothic style popular in the Episcopal church in the 19th century. While other churches had horizontal boards, carpenter Gothic stressed the vertical, with its boards and battens running vertically and its tall, narrow windows ending in pointed arches. It makes the church seem taller than it is and points upward, to “lift you up,” Fischbeck said.

The church never flourished as its founders had hoped. The congregation peaked at about 20 families around the turn of the 20th century, and the church never got large enough to have its own minister, Graebner said.

The building remained largely unchanged. It has no plumbing, no insulation and no electricity; light was provided by kerosene lamps.

“Part of what makes this building historically charming almost makes it unusable,” Fischbeck said.

The Church of the Advocate needs $117,000 to bring the chapel up to 21st-century standards and $200,000 for sewer, parking, sidewalks and lighting – on top of the $250,000 to move it. Fischbeck hopes to have the work done by next September in time for the church’s 10th anniversary.

Fischbeck understands the feelings of people of Germanton but says the church should have a congregation.

“We really want it to be a place of life and vitality,” she said. “In our mind, we’re moving the church to save the church. We’re moving St. Philip’s to save St. Philip’s.”

Standing a few feet away, Jerry Rutledge doesn’t see it that way. Rutledge, a lawyer in nearby Walnut Cove, helped form the nonprofit Friends of St. Philip’s Church of Germanton ( www.savestphilips.org). He still owns the house across the street from St. Philip’s, where he grew up and held an old, black-and-white photo of the church with a wood-shingled roof and what looked like a pig pen in the front yard.

“We feel that a mistake was made,” Rutledge said as workers secured straps to the top of the steeple before lifting it off with a crane. “This is a loss for Stokes County and a loss for Germanton.”

Rutledge and others note that the church wasn’t abandoned or neglected; endowments created by the church’s former members were used to maintain the building and keep the lawn mowed, he said, and twice-yearly services were held there until 2009. The church had been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1982, though it has been dropped because of the move.

About 600 people signed an online petition to keep St. Philip’s in Germanton, Rutledge said. But by the time the community got organized last winter, the decision to sell the property had been made within the diocese, said Sarah Woodard David, daughter of John and Linda Woodard.

“Nobody really knew there might be a problem because there aren’t any Episcopalians in Germanton,” she said.

David, an architectural historian who lives in Raleigh, attended Germanton Baptist Church with her parents, but she fondly remembers summer services in St. Philip’s next door. In planning her wedding in 2005, she arranged to have the ceremony in the pretty, white, Gothic chapel rather than her church’s “brick box.”

“I had always loved the building,” she said.

David hopes the bitterness about the move wears off eventually. She also hopes that the effort to keep St. Philip’s in Germanton inspires people in other communities to safeguard their treasured buildings.

“If you have a building that’s important to the community, you need to develop a relationship with the owner, to make sure the owner knows there’s local interest,” she said.

A new ‘family’

There are also signs that the struggle has rekindled interest in Germanton’s history. The community was founded in 1790 and was the county seat of Stokes County until 1849, when the creation of Forsyth County split the county in two (the county line crosses the church property). The courthouse was torn down in the 1950s, John Woodard said, and the old Germanton School, built in 1927 and closed in the mid-’70s, was torn down a few years ago.

And while St. Philip’s will be gone soon, too, pieces of the church will remain behind, said Catherine Hendren, president of the organization Preserve Historic Forsyth. Ten pews will remain in Germanton, along with prayer books, hymnals and some kerosene lamps, which Hendren said will be kept in a public place.

“That will keep this story together,” she said.

The bell came down with the steeple earlier this month and will go to Chapel Hill. As Fischbeck loaded it into the back of her car, Hendren and the Woodards gathered around to look at the inscription: “O.S. Bell & Co. Hillsboro O.” Fischbeck swung the bell, and it rang clear and loud.

“I’ve heard that before, but not quite that loud,” John Woodard said.

It will likely be the last time he ever hears it. Like many in Germanton, he said he won’t make the trip to Chapel Hill to see St. Philip’s after it becomes Church of the Advocate. Neither will his daughter.

“The experience of going to St. Philip’s without insulation, without electricity, without plumbing, created a stillness that was immaculate,” she said. “It’s an experience I don’t want to replace. I don’t want the new St. Philip’s to replace the old one in my memory.”

But Jan Dawkins, a member of Christ Episcopal Church in Walnut Cove, says she’d like to attend a service in the building in Chapel Hill. Dawkins, 64, has lived around Germanton all her life and stopped by when she saw the steeple of St. Philip’s being taken apart.

“This pretty little white church without a congregation was always sad to me,” Dawkins said. “I’m happy she’s got a home and a family.”

The fastest route from Germanton to Homestead Road in Chapel Hill is a little less than 90 miles and takes about an hour and 40 minutes.

It will take Blake Moving Co. about five days to move St. Philip’s Episcopal Church between the two places, over an alternate route that avoids busy highways. The church will cover 126 miles over mostly two-lane roads, skirting the towns of Walnut Cove, Stokesdale, Reidsville and Hillsborough, said company owner Mike Blake.

“What this route does is it keeps us in rural America, keeps us out of higher traffic areas,” Blake said.

The church is 26 feet wide, 56 feet long and 12 feet high without its roof, and Blake estimates it weighs about 75,000 pounds, lighter than a brick-veneer house. The truck will pull the church up to 12 mph but will average about 7 or 8 mph, Blake said. The company will pull the house only between 9 a.m. and 2 p.m. to avoid interfering with school buses.

Blake has made some high-profile moves, including the Midway Plantation house in Knightdale featured in the documentary “Moving Midway,” but he says that in more than 40 years he’s never moved a building farther than 100 miles. He said the state Department of Transportation, the Highway Patrol and everyone else along the route have been cooperative.

“They know it’s coming, and they’re helping us out,” Blake said. “Most people, when it’s a historical building like this, they’re just interested in saving it.”

Richard Stradling: 919-829-4739, @RStradling