I have recently started a photography project. My goal for this project is take photos, inside and out, of every church in McDowell County, West Virginia. Whether or not the church is operating does not matter. My concentration right now is on the closed churches, as I’m not sure how much longer some of those buildings will be standing. I want to make sure that I capture them before they collapse. My hope is that this project makes a difference to someone, anyone.
The first day that the project began (which was January 7, 2012), my husband, Buddy, went with me out of curiosity and to “hold my hand”, literally. I am scared to death of rats and bats (which are just flying rats) and am very sure that there are some that live in these old buildings.
The first church that we decided to go to was Conley’s Chapel A.M.E. Zion Church behind the Bantam in Gary, WV. Buddy and I had noticed for quite some time that the steeple was no longer on this church. We thought because of deterioration it had fallen. Later, I learned that was not the case; it had been stolen for the copper it was made out of. We drove up to the church and I photographed the entrance while Buddy walked around to the back. We did notice that the shingles were starting to slide off the roof, which we decided made it a little dangerous to be walking around. Buddy found the cornerstone and I photographed it and then we decided to give the stairs a try. Of course, Buddy went first and looked inside the door. Unfortunately, what he saw was not good. There is an old piano sitting in the vestibule and the doors to the sanctuary are open somewhat so that we could peer in. However, we thought it was too dangerous to go beyond the vestibule as we could see the ceiling had fell inside the sanctuary. I took a couple of photographs and we decided to go. As I took a few more outside, I felt such sadness for this church. My first thought of sadness was for the building. What was once a beautiful place, is now standing in ruin. Then, I thought about the souls that once worshipped the Lord there. Where are they now? Conley’s Chapel is now just an empty building that will soon be just a memory.
The next church that we visited was Filbert Methodist Church, which is located up Gary Holler. It’s a little white church that is beside a large house on a hill as you go into Filbert. We drove by the houses that are on both sides of the road and only inches away from it. At first, we weren’t sure how to get to the little white church, and then guessed at a road that we thought was a driveway. We drove behind the large house and the road continued behind the church. It’s a typical, little country church. In my mind’s eye, I could see the former parishioners gathering every Sunday at this little church. We did not see a cornerstone, so I am unsure of the age of the church. We were not sure if it was closed or not because the outside is in really good shape. I tried the doorknob and the handle turned. Buddy walked in first and checked everything out and then I went in. After we went in, we knew for sure that it was closed. There are no pews. The floor is beautiful hardwood and the windows have purple stained glass. It looked as though the roof may be leaking somewhat as parts of the floor looked as if it had been wet. It was evident that animals had been in there. The bell is still in the belfry as the rope is still hanging down in the vestibule. I took a few photos inside and then we decided to leave. Again, sadness. What a beautiful little church. Where are they now?
Upon leaving Filbert, we went up #8. There are a few houses that way and at the end is a coal loadout. As you pass the houses, you can see the old coke ovens that are still in the side of the mountain. At the end of the row of houses, there is a church there. I don’t know the name of it. There is no cornerstone, nor anything inside that said the name.
After taking a few photos outside, we tried the doorknob. Like, the two before it, the door opened. Upon stepping in, the first thing that we saw were red stairs that led up to the sanctuary. On the left of those stairs was an old chair lift. As we walked up the stairs, to the right were stairs that led down to a basement room that looked as if it had been used for a Sunday School class. We stepped into the sanctuary and saw that there were pews still there. Most of the pews had names on them. There was “King Harvey Family”, “Alfred Francis Family”, “Cumy Bell Lawrence Family”, “Roscoe Mathew Family”, and the “Tolliver Family.” In the back of the church, was a small balcony.
As I took pictures of the pews and the piano, Buddy said, “You have to come up here and see this.” He was standing behind the pulpit. I said, “Why? What is it?” He said, “You have to see it.” When I went up there, I saw what he was amazed about. Lying there on the pulpit was a Bible. It was open and, of course, dust covered. I immediately took a few pictures. The Bible was opened to Psalm 56 – 58. I told Buddy that maybe it was meant for us. I picked up the Bible, and checked the cover and the inside for a name. Just like the church, the Bible had no name. I had hoped maybe the pastor or someone had left us a clue to the last parishioners or the name of the church. There was no name to be found. We looked around a little more. Before we left, I again, for the third time that day, felt sadness. This little church immediately became special because of the opened Bible. This church seemed as if the people had been there and just disappeared.
That night, at my church (Long Point Missionary Baptist in Spencer Curver), preacher Donnie Farmer, Jr, preached on Psalm 58. We did not get to attend that night, and my Mom was so excited to tell us about it.
I still don’t know the name of this little church. If anyone that reads this does, please let me know. The building seems sound except for the wall where the piano is located. There seems to be a leak there as the paneling was starting to peel.
We were enjoying our adventure and the little bit of history that we were seeing and decided to go look for some more. Back in the day, Gary, Elbert & Filbert were BIG towns. I’m sure there used to be more churches there than what are left now.
Before we got back to Gary, I saw a white church on the hill across the bottom. We drove down there and I asked someone who lived there how to get to it. We found the way and what a way it was. There was a very small underpass that we had to drive through, and a turn that immediately turned left and and a turn that continued up the hill. We took the left turn and came to the church that I saw. We were unable to get very close to it as there was a large ditch that had been dug behind it. I took a picture of the outside. The name of the church just said Metropolitan. A friend told me that he had seen the cornerstone on this church and it was early 1900’s. This is one church I will have to visit again.
When we left the Metropolitan Church, we took the turn that led up the hill. It was a small road, but it had a view. You could see Gary Bottom, the Catholic Church, and the Gary District High School that was closed in the 1960’s. We found another little church on this road that is still in operation. I do not know the name of this church and it will have to be revisited for some inside photos. (Update 2/7/12: Known now to be Apostolic Temple Church).
From here, we drove back through the very small underpass and came out by the old Gary District High School. I had never been there before. That is a blog for another day. On the other side of the school stood Rock Hill Baptist Church.
According to the cornerstone, Rock Hill dates back to 1903. This church is still in operation. I have no other information on it than what was listed on the cornerstone. I took several photos outside and then we left. That church, also, will have to be revisited once I find out who the pastor is and obtain permission to take photos of the inside.
The Bible says in Matthew 18:20, “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” Where are the two or three that used to be there? Why did they give up hope? What happened to their faith? Is it simply because of the population decline in the county? Or is it the population decline in God’s people? As we visited these empty churches, I had one verse that kept going through my mind: Psalms 9:17: “The wicked shall be turned into hell, and all the nations that forget God.” Have we forgotten God? Where is He in our lives, county, and nation?
This project has become more to me than just taking pictures of old buildings. It is a history lesson, an adventure, and I hope for it to be more.
* Update: A name for the church in Gary (on the hill on the right after going through the underpass) is Apostolic Temple Church. Many thanks to Jayne E. Callahan for providing the name.
**Update: The Church at #8 is Kyle Chapel Church — name provided by Clifton Moore. Many thanks to Clifton Moore for the name.
(These photos for the blog will look much better in the finished project.)
(Note: I write as I talk. I know the correct word is “hollow”, but those of us from McDowell and Wyoming counties know the correct pronunciation is “holler”!)
© Post & photos: D. Renee Bolden