– Greene County’s oldest parish marks 150 years
– Written by Suzie Hudson and Mimi Vickers
– Photographed by Jesse Walker –
At the end of North Main Street, through the quaint downtown district of Greensboro, sits a little red church – unassuming, yet stunning. Small but mighty, its parishioners would say. The stalwart sanctuary has occupied this city corner since the days of Reconstruction. It was the first, and has remained the only, Episcopal congregation in Greene County. This year, on June 14, the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer marks its 150th anniversary.Redeemer has a long, unbroken history of continuous worship and outreach to the surrounding community. Women have always played a key role at Redeemer, both in organizing the early church and in maintaining it through the years. Several prominent ladies are known to have migrated to Greensboro from Charleston and Savannah to escape the Civil War. In 1863, joining forces with two local families, they forged a common desire to form an Episcopal church. The group of fourteen communicants first gathered in local homes, but as attendance grew, rented the town hall for worship services.
When it came to building a church, one interesting story tells how the first $100 donation was made by a woman named Miss Elizabeth Gilby. She was an English governess in the home of the Phillip Poullains, one of the founding families. Gilby is said to have wanted a church for the many Poullain children she served. It was her initial gift that made possible the purchase of land on which Redeemer still stands. Other donations are said to have come from as far away as Washington, D.C., Savannah, and Augusta. Mr. J.O. Barnwell from Rome, Georgia, was the architect and builder for the project which was completed in 1868. The Rev. Joshua Knowles led the church for seventeen years. The graves of Knowles and his wife mark the entrance to what is now called the Remembrance Garden, which today receives the ashes of deceased parishioners.
Over the years, Redeemer has largely been a mission church, yoked with parishes in both Madison and Washington, and at one time surviving with just a few families. It wasn’t until the building of Lake Oconee that the church grew to a size that could support a full-time rector.
Redeemer is architecturally significant as an unusually fine example of the Gothic Revival style, rarely seen in small Southern towns. Its steep roof, central rectangular tower with circular window, slender, pyramid-shaped steeple and board-and-batten construction (also repeated on the interior with its exposed ceiling beams of hand-hewn timbers) are all characteristic of the style. Amazingly, the church has survived largely intact, just as it was built. In 1990, after careful research, the then-white exterior was repainted to match the original color, an oxblood and buttermilk paint.
Anyone entering Redeemer’s sanctuary is struck by its warmth and charm. The original oil chandeliers, now electrified, are still in place. The large arched window behind the altar is fitted with handmade stained glass, its diamond-shaped panes vibrant in colors of red, yellow, and blue. On many a Sunday morning, their radiant reflection spills onto the walls and floor, creating a worship experience of profound beauty. Its architecture, early history and distinction as the oldest continuously worshiping parish in all of Greene County have afforded Redeemer the honor of being listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
With such a lengthy history, Redeemer has tales to tell. Parishioners recorded how one wedding was interrupted by a stray spark from the wood stove, igniting the bride’s veil. Another recalled how a Sunday’s incense burning set off the alarm and called in the fire trucks. And there were those Palm Sunday processions back in the 1990s that were led by Frosty, the donkey that came over from a local farm.
Redeemer has always had a deep connection to the local community and outreach is of the highest priority. For that reason, many people in Greensboro refer to it as “the little church with the big heart.” For a number of years, the church-organized Reynolds Home Tour provided all of its proceeds to numerous local charities, including the Good Samaritan Clinic and the R.E.A.P employment advocacy program. Today, Redeemer continues to support the efforts of Habitat for Humanity, Circle of Love, and the Christian Outreach Thrift Store, plus its own tutoring and car programs and food baskets to families during the holidays.
Most importantly, Redeemer has stood the test of time. One hundred fifty years later and still going strong, this little church can still proudly stand by its motto of “Reaching Out, Reaching In.”