Mt. Vernon Presbyterian's historic past, optimistic future
By Katie Scarvey
OODLEAF — You might not pay a whole lot of attention to Mt. Vernon Presbyterian Church as you drive by, other than to note that it looks well-cared for and sits in a beautiful rural location on Carson Road in Woodleaf.
There’s nothing advertising the fact that it tells a fascinating chapter of history in Rowan County: it was organized by a group of freed slaves who left nearby Unity Presbyterian Church to start their own church.
The church has come a long way since the days when congregants met under a brush arbor.
What hasn’t changed is the church’s deep and abiding ties to its rural western Rowan community.
Lifelong members like Brenda Chunn, Dr. Catrelia Hunter and Bertha Hunnicutt are deeply committed to its mission and to keeping the church’s rich heritage alive and vibrant.
Mt. Vernon Presbyterian Church celebrated its 141st anniversary last Sunday. The church’s pastor is Emery L. Rann III, in his second year. There are 51 active members, says Chunn, who has a big booming laugh and a personality that could melt an acre of permafrost. In honor of the anniversary, the church put together a booklet detailing the church’s origins.
Among the church’s original members was “Stephen,” who was listed on the Unity Presbyterian rolls as a servant of John Carson — the landowner who eventually gave the church the acreage on which it sits today.
Besides Stephen, the names of 50 “colored” persons listed as slaves showed up on the Unity membership rosters from the period of 1800 to 1875.
After the Civil War, in 1870, the black members of Unity Presbyterian left that church and began to meet under a brush arbor on the site where Mt. Vernon Presbyterian is currently located.
According to the sessional records of Unity Presbyterian, it was resolved by the session on Sept. 18, 1870, “that the names of such colored members as have ceased to attend our church be stricken from our rolls and the clerk was ordained to do the same.”
In 1889, John H. and Molly A. Carson deeded land to the church for just $4. The trustees who signed the deed on Aug. 23, 1889, were Stephen Chunn, Ellis Fleming, Epps Campbell and Ben Kerr. After the land was acquired, a wooden church was built in 1890 under the pastorate of one Rev. Crawford.
Most of the lumber was donated, with church members hauling timber to the sawmill. Many members were farmers, so they would work on the church in the winter when they didn’t have as much farm work to do.
Members recently discovered some old lumber in the attic of the church, which is assumed to be left over from the original construction. They took some of the timbers — still bearing axe marks — and constructed a cross that now hangs in the church’s sanctuary.
John Marlin Sr. — one of Hunter’s ancestors — was the main carpenter for the original building project.
The building was a white, one-story frame structure with a tin roof, heated by a wood stove that sat in the center of the building. Kerosene lamps with brackets and reflectors — fueled by pine knots gathered from the woods — lit the sanctuary.
Hunnicutt, who is 79, recalls that the kerosene lamps, were still being used when she was a child.
“Every window had one,” she said. She came across a similar kerosene lamp at a flea market and bought it. It’s probably not from Mt. Vernon, she says, but it’s much like the ones she remembers.
Hunnicutt remembers the days when the men sat on one side of the church and the women on the other, with the children in the middle.
The church has had many additions and improvements over the years, as recently as 2008, when there was a complete remodeling of the pastor’s study, conference room, library and adjoining restrooms. The two front doors were closed off and a rock wall and lighted bronze cross were added,
Chunn pulls out an old record book that she remembers from when she was a child.
When children in the church were 10 or so, she says, they were considered old enough to take on tasks involving writing and recording. She remembers proudly keeping track of how much each Sunday school class donated. The class that donated the most got to exhibit the Sunday school banner in their room, she said.
Hunter explains one of the most important legacies of the church.
“Over the years, Mt. Vernon has believed in education,” she says. “We’ve had a large percentage of individuals going to college.” Many Mt. Vernon members went on to accomplish significant things.
Hunter herself was an administrator at Livingstone College, including being acting president for a time. And Chunn’s brother (William Theodore Morrison Jr.), Hunter says, “did the unthinkable” for a black man in the early 1950s and landed a job at IBM.
The emphasis on education continues to this day. “Young people who grow up here are expected to go to college,” Hunter says.
Chunn agrees. “We celebrate their accomplishments from kindergarten on up.”
Chunn, who says she has “the gift of gab,” retired from AT&T and then went to work as projects manager at Livingstone College.
Now, at 59, she’s retired and devotes her talents to the church.
One ongoing project is to restore the original cemetery, which is across the road from the church. Brenda Chunn’s husband, Herbert Chunn, has been working on the cemetery project for about three years, he says. He’s felled large trees and cleared a lot of brush. The battle, however, is ongoing, with the wilderness trying to reclaim some of the graves. Still, it’s looking a whole lot better than it used to, he says.
Chunn says she learned from her aunt Essie Mae Morrison that the cemetery was the final resting place for workers at the nearby quarry in Woodleaf (now Martin Marietta Aggregates) who had no other place to be buried.
As history-minded as this church is, its focus is on the future, not only of the church but of the larger community.
One way the church reaches out is by providing uniforms for needy students at Knox Middle School, Cleveland Elementary School and Woodleaf Elementary School.
Another ongoing church project is centered around 25 acres of land on Woodleaf-Barber Road given to the church by Ruth Neely Meyers in the 1970s.
Chunn and Hunter are excited about the future of this property, which boasts as lovely a setting as any stretch of land in the state could hope for.
This past Tuesday, they were visiting the community garden planted by church members. They were joined by Dianne and Charlie Rankin and their granddaughter Madison, who came to harvest collard greens from one of several beds that are planted.
With the help of Darrell Blackwelder, “muscadine row” was recently planted — featuring grapes, raspberries, blackberries and blueberries. Soon, a large portion of the property will turned over by Charlie Rankin that will next year be planted with corn, white potatoes and sweet potatoes, Chunn says.
One of the church’s goals is to help teach people in the community how to grow and can their own vegetables.
Chunn says that her husband, who is retired from Philip Morris, has always said he’d “rather have a free market instead of a flea market.”
“He believes in feeding people for free,” she says.
Eventually, they hope to build shelters, a playground and walking trails on the property, as well as a pond that will be stocked with brim and crappie.
Chunn envisions a space that will nurture and support healthful living.
“It will be a relaxing, tranquil place where you can catch fish and then go home and cook them,” she says.
Hunter notes that her families and others used to picnic there years ago. There was a baseball field, she says, with a walking trail around it.
The area won’t just be for Mt. Vernon’s congregation, Chunn says. They’re hoping other churches in the area will get involved, including Mt. Tabor Presbyterian, Cedar Grove AME Zion, Allen Temple Presbyterian and Third Creek AME Zion.
Chunn says she is “writing grants left and right” to find money to transform the land into a place that will support local people by meeting emotional and physical needs: sustenance in the form of fresh food, recreation, physical exercise and a sense of peace.
If you’re interested in getting involved in the church’s garden project, email Herbert or Brenda Chunn at email@example.com.