September 14, 2021

Two Sacred Places as Community Spaces in Rural America

Often built in the center of town near the local post office or town hall, rural churches were designed with community gathering in mind. In small towns like Sheridan, Wyoming, and Abbeville, South Carolina, with populations fewer than 20,000 people and congregants living across wide geographic regions, going to church meant reconnecting with friends and family, accessing free resources, and participating in service projects to better the region.

After closing their doors for several months in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic due to safety concerns and ongoing renovation projects, two churches are reopening their doors to the community, adapting to an evolving world, and offering newly renovated spaces to bring their congregations home once more. These projects were funded, in part, by the National Fund for Sacred Places.

A Rural Gem (Sheridan, Wyoming)

The founding of the First Congregational United Church of Christ is inextricable from the founding of the town of Sheridan, Wyoming. John D. Loucks founded the town in 1882, became the first mayor in 1884, and functioned as the first Sunday school superintendent in the church’s early years. Though it started as a homestead ministry in the 1880s, the congregation built its first church building in 1892 on a hill where the courthouse is now located. In 1911, the congregation replaced the wooden building with the brick structure that stands today and features a Hutchings Organ funded by Andrew Carnegie in the 1910s.

In 2019, the First Congregational United Church of Christ was accepted into the National Fund for Sacred Places program. Over the past two years, the congregation undertook a comprehensive renovation, building a new restroom located off the sanctuary that complies with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), installing wheelchair platforms and ramps, reinforcing the box trusses with steel plates and diagonal braces, and adding hot water to the basement restrooms.

A view of the ceiling inside a church. It is various shades of brown with detailing that outlines a square, and then a star as it goes up into a higher portion of the ceiling. In the center is square ventilation square, and thee are hanging lanterns on the side of each starpoint.

photo by: First Congregational United Church of Christ

Ceiling of the First Congregational United Church of Christ.

Interior view of the First Congregational United Church of Christ. Wooden pews in two levels in a curved shape are in front of a series of stained glass windows. There is a fan and a lantern hanging down from the ceiling.

photo by: Steve Bourne

An interior view of the gorgeous stained glass windows and pews at the First Congregational United Church of Christ.

In the past, guests had to travel down two flights of stairs to the basement to use the building's only restroom, where the faucets only had access to cold water. The upgrades that comply with ADA access guidelines and the hot water upgrades allow all members of the community to safely and comfortably use the space throughout the duration of worship services, community service activities, and events.

Now that the church is reopening, Rev. Sheila Naismith says they will continue to serve the ever-growing community through concerts, a music scholarship through Sheridan College, and an outdoor community vegetable garden. The board recently committed to being a green church and unanimously voted to be open and affirming. Rev. Naismith even sits on the local Pride Parade committee.

The First Congregational United Church of Christ also hosts a feeding program supported by multiple area churches, which will be further enhanced by building upgrades that will make spaces safer and more usable for volunteers.

“I think one of the reasons we were chosen [for the Fund] was that we are a small but dedicated group of people in a small town,” says Rev. Naismith. “The church’s belief is that we should be open and loving to all people. In this rural community of Wyoming, to have a church like that is a rare gem.”

A Small Town’s Big Church (Abbeville, South Carolina)

Founded in 1842, Trinity Episcopal Church was initially a mission of the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina, and is today part of the Episcopal Diocese of Upper South Carolina. The Gothic Revival-style building was erected in 1859 and features a historic tracker organ, stained-glass windows, handmade pews, the original altar, and a 125-foot spire. When the church was built, it was the tallest structure in South Carolina outside of the urban hubs of Charleston and Columbia. Today, the steeple, newly restored thanks to the National Fund for Sacred Spaces, still towers over the town, catching the eye of visitors near and far.

“The church is Abbeville's Mona Lisa and Eiffel Tower all in one,” says Mike Bedenbaugh, president of Preservation South Carolina. “It’s such a classical beauty. Its height dominates the skyline of downtown and makes an impact on everyone who lives in Abbeville.”

Though located in the small town of Abbeville, South Carolina, which today has a population of around 5,000 people, friends across the South Carolina upcountry contributed the $15,665 (approximately $520,000 today) necessary to erect the building in the mid-19th century. Residents from across the region continue to support the church through historic site tours, community events, visiting local businesses on Trinity Street, and donating to the renovation campaign.

In 2019, the church received a $400,000 anonymous donation, and in the same year it received a $250,000 matching grant from the National Fund for Sacred Spaces. At the time, the building was condemned due to the historic steeple nearly collapsing into the building. Today, thanks to the grant from the National Fund, the $500,000 match has been raised, the building is structurally secure, and congregants have returned to the building for weekly services and weddings.

Long view of the Trinity Abbeville church with a crane overhead as they stabilize the Spire. There are a set of trees covering the back of the church and a lower frame house on the far left of the image. A smaller crane that is blue sits in front of building.

photo by: Trinity Abbeville

A view of the spire stabilization at the Trinity Episcopal Church in Abbeville, South Carolina.

Though the renovation is nearly complete, Preservation South Carolina has plans to broaden the reach of the church, which is currently leased by the nonprofit from the Diocese of Upper South Carolina. Bedenbaugh says he hopes to reenergize the Friends of Trinity nonprofit so that the group can take over from Preservation South Carolina and organize community events once the five-year lease ends in 2023. Preservation South Carolina is also working to tell the full history of the church, by incorporating enslaved history into tours.

“Because it was built in 1859, the church was built with a gallery for enslaved people,” says Bedenbaugh. “We have been able to locate the registers that name the enslaved congregants who attended the church in that balcony. We are helping to tell that story as well.”

A detail view of the steeple of brown stone church where a crane is putting in steel beams for stabilization. There are two construction workers, one on the crane and one in the steeple guiding the beam in.

photo by: Preservation South Carolina

Workers install the temporary steel beams as part of the stabilization of the spire at Trinity Episcopal Church.

Community through COVID-19

Both the First Congregational United Church of Christ and Trinity Episcopal Church were chosen as grantees of the National Fund for Sacred Places prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Both began the construction and preservation processes more than a year ago, and both congregations experienced their share of loss, construction delays, and uncertainty. But both churches persevered, with the hope that their communities and their congregations could return to their newly protected spaces once more.

Bedenbaugh says the COVID-19 pandemic fortunately did not cause many construction delays for Trinity Episcopal Church, but instead brought people closer to the church.

“The congregation is a very dedicated, loyal group that is small, but is growing,” he says. “Even though they have services with only 20 or so people, and membership of about 30, they have added about five people to their roster in the past year, and I think some of that was inspired by the work we are doing to make it safe and make it useful again.”

Rev. Naismith, who joined the First Congregational United Church of Christ in 2017, says the COVID-19 pandemic altered the church’s renovation timeline, delaying access to building materials, including resin which is used to make the carpets that cover the church’s floors. Still, the church members leaned on one another to finish the project and open the doors to congregants in early 2021.

“Everything went out the window with the pandemic,” she says. “But I decided somehow we need to do this, somehow we need to keep trying. And that’s what we did.”

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Morgan P. Vickers is a writer, historian, and graduate student based in Oakland, California. They are passionate about spatial histories, underrepresented narratives, and questions of belonging.

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