Every second and fourth Sunday, the doors of St. Bartholmew’s Episcopal Church are open.
There’s no morning worship, rather an afternoon service that carries on the church’s tradition.
Vernire Latson has been a member of St. Bartholomew’s all of her life. It was her parents church. We had a large congregation but the older folks are dead and the younger ones have moved away. So it’s small now. But even though it’s small, it’s still close knit.”
She’s one of the few and faithful members to sprinkle the pews. A stark difference than in years past. Believe it or not, at one point in time, St. Bartholmew’s had the largest Episcopal congregation–black or white– in the state.
“The area became one of the first independent towns. One of the first black towns. But the problem was, most of the blacks didn’t own the land. They were workers. And as their children came up, there were no jobs. So they left.” Father Charles Hoskins came to St. Bartholomew’s in 1975– serving as the church’s last rector. He’s also a local historian.
“They keep the tradition to the extent that is possible. But in my time some years ago to when I was there last, there was no doubt within two minutes you realized this is a different congregation.”
Different is an understatement.
Founded on what was originally a rice plantation, the church was built in 1896 and is the oldest continuing African-American congregation in the diocese.
Its history, however, goes back to the early 1800’s, when the Episcopalian church took an interest in evangelizing slaves.
“In the 1820’s, some white families started a Sunday school for adults and a Sunday school for children in the general area of Burroughs. So, that thrust to evangelize the slaves, the Episcopal Church picks it up and runs with it.”
Father William Willoughby, the Dean of Savannah and rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, also serves as the vicar of St. Bartholomew’s. He says since its construction, the building — and the items in it–have remained relatively unchanged.
“My suspicion about these two chairs is that they may even predate this building and they may have even been carved by members of this congregation.”
Built just one year after the church, the parish hall next door was once a school house.
“Until the 1950’s, the Episcopal Church ran the only school in the Burroughs District and then Chatham County District picked up on this. I buried the last of the graduates at this school in the graveyard.”
Time has no doubt taken its toll on the congregation. But within these walls lies a spirit of survival.
“It’s important from a black point of view,” says Fr. Hoskins. “Blacks have been in the Episcopal Church since 1750. It’s up to us– the black folks– and also the luck in a sense of conditions beyond our control. If they go together, we save the day. If they come apart, all the work will be in vain.”
So they look to a higher source to sustain them– trusting that divine intervention will carry them through.
“We don’t judge the success of the gospel based on whether or not we have a mega church or a small church,” says Fr. Willoughby. “It’s whether or not one or two souls are brought to Christ. And as long as there is an active and viable group of people that gather on a Sunday, we will continue.”