How Powerful Stories are Rebuilding a ChurchRoundup
tags: historic preservation, African American history, Pennsylvania, Rural History
Deborah Fallows is a writer, linguist and fellow at New America. She has written extensively on language, education, families and work, China, and travel for The Atlantic, National Geographic, Slate, The New York Times, The LA Times, and The Washington Monthly.
This much is certain about Elias Van Buren Parker: He was born into slavery, in Virginia. He served with Union forces in the final year of the Civil War, as part of the 38th Infantry Regiment of the United States Colored Troops. And after post-war service that led to his honorable discharge from the military in New Orleans, he was determined to head north, as part of an African-American migration of people seeking work and a place to settle. One of his great-granddaughters, Janice Sweeney, says that according to family lore he was “told by his master to marry, start a family, build a church, and preach the word.”
However exactly he decided to begin the journey, Janice Sweeney’s summary accurately describes what he did. As he made his way north to Pennsylvania, Elias Parker walked over South Mountain, where the northern extension of the Blue Ridge finally lets go, to Mt. Holly Springs, Pennsylvania, about 25 miles north of Gettysburg. He married Lucinda Johnson, and they started what grew into generations of a large, sprawling family in the neighborhood of Mt. Holly Springs that the African Americans called Mt. Tabor. According to legend— and many of the stories of these parts and people in those times are inevitably legend rather than documented history—Parker was a carpenter and stone mason, using his skills to construct the Mt. Tabor African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church of pine cladding, logs, and stones. A metal hinge in the double-hung windows of the church is marked 1870, the best clue of when the church was probably constructed.
The small church buzzed as a place of worship and a hub of community activities. Mt. Holly Springs itself became a popular resort town, sought during the hot summer months by city folks, for its fresh air and amusements including a Ferris wheel, roller coaster, boating, restaurants, and more. Riding the trolley in from nearby Carlisle made the journey part of the fun.
Over the decades, more work opportunities beyond the Mt. Holly paper mill lured much of the congregation away from the town and the church. Then, the popularity of the family automobile lured many of the tourists off the trolley to other destinations. The church had a great run, but finally closed its door for good in 1970. Over the next 45 years, brush and vines completely engulfed the church. The memories of the services, the Sunday school, and the activities, began slipping away. Even today’s Mt. Holly Chief of Police, Tom Day, had thought that the church, barely visible from the street, was probably an outbuilding from someone’s farm, several people told me.
My husband, Jim, and I travelled to Mt. Holly Springs – sometimes called Mt. Holly, sometimes just Holly, and sometimes by its formal name – as the trees were starting to leaf out. We were finally, and gratefully, resuming our travels for Our Towns after two years of mostly home-bound pandemic. We went to see the church and the cemetery across the street from it, part of a series of tours by the Mt. Tabor Preservation Project to tell the stories, spread the word, and hopefully, restore the church that is so fragile that many fear could simply fall apart and crumble to the ground.
The stories of Mt. Holly have become the sinew that could connect the town, or borough, as it is officially designated, from its past glory days, through some recent decline, to a new version of thriving. As for the decline, it is evident from a quick stroll through downtown. One bookend of the historic main street, Baltimore Avenue, is dominated by a new Dollar General and a Sheetz mega-gas station. The old theater has been divvied up into a complex of apartments, which you could either describe as a loss of culture or as a promising example of repurposing, except for the eyesore display of individual utility meters displayed on the front of the building. Same for another church a few hundred feet up the street. The old houses and buildings, built right to the edge of the sidewalk, seem to serve as a kind of sound tunnel for the traffic that roars with a trail of unforgiving noise along Baltimore Avenue, which is a stretch of heavily-trafficked PA 34.