Under the Oaks – Christ Episcopal Church

Charles Wesley preached here on March 14, 1736.  It was the first service to be held at the new mission on St. Simon’s Island. There was no actual church building so Reverend Wesley preached right there under the live oak trees with limbs stretching out over an acre and with trunks so large you cannot reach your arms around them – trees that were as old as, well…. the trees.

I like to think that first sermon was in the cool of the evening after a long hot day… new settlers in from a long day’s work clearing fields, soldiers from nearby Fort Frederica, watermen brought in with the tide hauling bushels of crabs or shrimp – everyone from the small colony…. men, women, and children gathering to sing a few hymns and hear the words of the Lord.  George Whitfield, who was a deacon at the Savannah church at the time remembered:

In the evening we had publick Prayers, and expounding of the second Lesson under a large tree, and many more present than could be expected.” 1 (Aug 8, 1737)

The oak no longer stands. It has long since succumbed to storms and damage and time.  There is a Georgia Historical Marker at the site that commemorates the “Wesley Oak” that stands very close to another ancient oak tree, so everyone just seems to think that is the actual oak where Wesley preached.  Yep, me too. Even took a photo with Jerry hugging the tree.  Actually taking the time to read the marker helps.  So, I have a great photo of an old oak tree that is NOT the Wesley Oak…. still a beautiful oak tree that is very picture worthy in its own right.  The original oak is gone but a cross was made from the wood and now hangs inside the church to further commemorate the man and the sermon that evening on St. Simon’s Island.

Charles was the brother of the Reverend John Wesley, the rector at the Christ Chapel in Savannah. Both brothers were sent out from the Church of England.  Brother Charles had traveled to St. Simon’s Island in the Georgia colony as a chaplain for James Oglethorpe, credited as the founder of the state. Oglethorpe had established Fort Frederica on the island on February 15, 1736 and brought in Scottish soldiers to help secure the frontier.  I do not suppose anyone thinks of the low country and barrier islands along the Georgia coast as “the frontier” these days and I daresay not too many people worry about protection when they visit, but in 1736, it was pretty much the edge of nowhere, full of all sorts of danger…. and possible Spanish colonists that couldn’t be allowed.

Charles Wesley established a mission on the island and preached that first sermon on March 14, 1736.  In the beginning, he held services in a small tabby (cement & broken up seashells) building within the walls of Fort Frederica. He served the congregation on the island at the small mission until July 1736.  The United Society Partners in the Gospel provided clergy for the mission/church during the 1700’s. After America’s Revolutionary War, the local churches broke away from the Church of England (understandably) becoming Episcopal churches in the US.

The first permanent church on the property was built in 1820. This church stood until the American Civil War when it was mostly destroyed.  Christ Episcopal Church at St. Simon’s was incorporated by state legislature in 1808 and given one hundred and eight acres on the island near Fort Frederica. Reverend William Best was the first rector of the newly incorporated Christ Episcopal Church which joined other churches to form the Episcopal Diocese in 1823.  On a sidenote, church history from Wikipedia 5 indicates that in 1840, bees built a hive in the church steeple. The congregants collected and sold honey to raise money for building repairs.  Two thoughts come quickly to mind; 1) this just has to be an early predecessor to more church bake sales than you can shake a stick at, and 2) I wonder if the bees “hummed” along with the singing during church services.

Christ Church continued to be served by lay ministers who visited the area as circuit riders at intervals in the 1800’s. It wasn’t clear where the congregation met once the church building was destroyed although under the trees seems to have worked out okay.  In 1879, Anson Greene Phelps Dodge, Jr. (Deacon and then Rector) reorganized the parish and, in 1884, had the church rebuilt in memory of his wife who was buried on the grounds. 

Reverend Dodge also established another church, St. Ignatius, nearby on Demere Road as an outreach to slaves that had been freed after the war.  Anna Alexander, a deaconess who served at St. Ignatius, is noteworthy as the first black deaconess in the Episcopal Church.  In 1998, she was named as a saint in the church by the Episcopal Diocese.  In the 1980’s, St. Ignatius was closed and merged with Christ Episcopal Church.  Christ Episcopal Church continues to be an active congregation with services still being held throughout the year.  Visitors are made welcome. (According to the church website, about 20,000 people visit the church each year.)

“Our grounds and our faith are historic, built upon the foundations laid by our ancestors on this island and the host of saints who have come before us.” 4

We were blessed in that the church was open on the day we visited, and we were able to go inside and enjoy the beauty of the church.  The interior of the building, which is quite simple and beautiful, was built with local heart pine which has never been stained or painted. 

We also spent quite a bit of time in the cemetery on the grounds. Many of the tombstones there are as old as the trees that surround them.  The oldest tombstone is 1803 although it is thought that there are older graves there. The cemetery includes the graves of the Rectors of the church and their families, early settlers, Officers of the British Army who served nearby, and soldiers from every war fought by the US.3

The day we visited was a quiet one with only one other couple strolling through the grounds reading the inscriptions on the gravestones, a Pastor and his wife visiting from Tennessee. 

Before we left, we asked the pastor to say a prayer with us. He obliged praying for safety in our travels and asked God to bless the church and bring souls to salvation there in the future. We prayed under the beautiful live oak trees where some 300 years ago, the Reverend Charles Wesley had preached and, no doubt, had prayed the same prayer for mercy and salvation. Amen

Notes & Sources with links:

  1. Georgia Historical Marker 063-33A, 1968, Christ Episcopal Church (I was unable to locate the link for the specific marker online so included the link for the main site.)
  2. Georgia Historical Marker 063-34A, Wesley Oak (Unable to locate the link for the specific marker.)
  3. Georgia Historical Marker 063-35, Christ Church Cemetery
  4. Christ Episcopal Church Website/About Us /(ccfssi.org)
  5. Wikipedia, Christ Church (St. Simons, Georgia)

If you’d like to visit Christ Episcopal Church:

There are two locations on St. Simons Island. The main Church and offices are located at 6329 Frederica Rd., St. Simons Island, GA 31522. St. Ignatius Chapel is located at 2609 Demere Rd., St. Simons Island, GA 31522. 4

A Good Box of Dirt

We met them while we were out walking looking for birds near our rental.

It was January and it was cold – had been in the 30’s since we had arrived. I hadn’t figured this part of Georgia to be this cold even in the dead of winter.  We were on our way to Florida where it was much warmer. Believe me, the sun in Florida is a much deeper yellow – not this tepid light barely yellow that we were seeing here in the lowlands of Georgia.

We stopped for a week to visit with our daughter who lives just up the road a piece. She was coming down for a few days and we were idling a bit, waiting, and taking the opportunity to check out the birds at the two refuges nearby. All in all, it was a good place to stop, a small condo complex in an out-of-the-way place on a salt water marsh just about halfway between Savannah and Brunswick.

On this particular afternoon, it was sunny outside and a bit warmer so we decided to take a walk around the complex so headed up towards the fishing pier just to see if any birds were about that might be fishing in the creek. That’s where we saw them – up by a big pile of dirt over in the back corner of the lot.

She was 87, he was 95.  She was shoveling dirt from the dirt pile into a cardboard box sitting on the back of her golf cart. He was sitting in the cart watching her work.  

We walked on over and Jerry offered to shovel for her.  Without a thought, he reached for the shovel to take over the job for her.  Oh, my goodness, she pulled that shovel away like he was trying to snatch one of her grandbabies right out of her arms.  Jerry stepped back and stammered out an apology of sorts and looked at me like he really didn’t know what to do at this point.

She politely told him, she didn’t need any help, thank you anyway, explaining that this was her exercise and that a person needs projects like this to keep healthy especially as they are getting a bit older.

As we talked, she continued shoveling. We told them what we were doing there, and she told us why she was shoveling dirt into the box on the golf cart.  I had assumed she might be dressing out her flower beds around their condo but that was not it at all.

She also explained that he had a pulled shoulder and couldn’t shovel and that’s why he wasn’t helping. She really seemed to want to make sure that we knew that he was not just some no-account husband who would just sit watching his hard-driving wife do all the grunt work. It hadn’t crossed our minds to question his watching her seeing as she had told us right up front how old they were.

All in all, she was immaculate, all the while shoveling dirt.  She was just about four foot nothing and wearing neatly ironed jeans with knife sharp creases down the front and back. People rarely iron jeans anymore let along crease them like that front and back.

She had on a sweater set like a good Southern woman of her generation would wear (or, maybe any generation for that matter) – a print blouse with a nice pastel tropical print and a color matched sweater. Tropical but tasteful; you know, light yellow hibiscus rather than bright red ones. Her hair was beautiful – naturally white with soft curls framing her very well-made up face. One should always look one’s best when going out to work in the yard, I always say. (Okay, not really. I work outside in torn jeans and stained t-shirts.)

As noted above, I had assumed that she was getting that good dirt for her flower beds or, maybe to fill in a hole or two in the yard. She said no, that wasn’t it and, just to make sure we knew she wasn’t taking the dirt without permission, told us that the HOA folks brought the dirt in here, dumped it, and said that anyone could use it to fill up holes and all in the yard.

He laughed right out loud and said she wasn’t gonna be filling up any holes with that dirt. She was bound and determined to go building a ramp down to the creek from her back yard so she could get down to the creek to go fishing.

‘Need mind that she could ride her golf cart up to the pier – about ¼ mile all told from her doorstep – and go fishing in the creek anytime she felt the urge.

And, ‘need mind that the tide coming and going turned that stretch of water into a mud flat at least twice a day. 

And, ‘need mind that that same tide would wash away all her efforts at building a ramp just about those same times every day. It would explain why the bank was washed out in the first place.

But, never mind all that. She had a project to do. She had set her mind to it. And, she was determined to get it done. Pronto. No need to be messing around and jaw-boning all day about it.

Now, in my world, being who I am, I think I would just have run up to the big box store and bought one of those fancy pre-made concrete steps they make for mobile homes and such. I would have paid them an extra $35 and had them deliver the steps and plop them right down in place up next to the bank.  Project conceived; project done.

The box was about half full of dirt now (or still half empty depending on whether you’re an optimist or pessimist). I wondered how full she would go and who would be lifting that box off the back of the golf cart….being he is 95 and has that hurt shoulder and all. I didn’t dare suggest that we might follow them home and provide some bit of assistance.

He said she’d never catch any fish in that creek anyway. What fish were there came in with the tide and went out with it…..everyday. But I have to say, we knew there were fish in the creek because we’d seen the Hooded Mergansers and Great Egrets out there fishing. Okay, they were little fish…but they were fish, nonetheless.

She said she would too catch fish – she just knew it. How could anyone doubt her? She’d grown up fishing and I reckon she knew what she was doing.

We asked if she’d eat the fish that she caught. Well, of course, she would. Why would she ever go to all that trouble to catch a fish and then just throw it back? Why, that would be just crazy! Of course, she was gonna eat any fish she caught.

While we watched her work, he gave us the lowdown on other things. He said she’d lived there (at the condos) since her husband died about twelve years ago. She’d moved up from Darien down yonder to the south.  He said she’d had two properties and got tired of mowing and taking care of things at the big house where she’d lived with her husband and raised her babies. So, she was living up here now in a condo that was much smaller and easy to keep up.  

Her daughter lived just up the road – you could see her house from right there where we were standing. Looking out over the marsh to the southeast, he pointed out a blue house on the point where the creek curved its way out to the river.

The box was really getting full now. She was barely getting half a shovel of dirt each time she lifted so I knew she’d never lift that whole box of dirt off the cart. Maybe she would just tip it over dumping it into the yard and then work from there.

We asked how they’d met…they had both mentioned previous spouses that had died. She said – she had started doing most of the talking now – that they met in church. They had gone to the same church for years and had known each other only in passing when their respective spouses were alive. They had continued to sit in different parts of the church after they died and then, just like that, one day they started sitting together on the same side…he’d moved over to her side….and that was that. Make a long story short…. they became a couple.

Well, the box was full of dirt now and that ramp was waiting. They had to go. Nice to meet you fine folks. She plopped the shovel into the back of the golf cart, hopped onto the front seat and, with a last wave back in our direction, drove on off across the field.

Later, we spotted her working at the edge of the yard building her ramp. I wondered how long it would take for her to ramp up the four foot drop down to the water’s edge or how long before the incoming tide would wash it all away. It was a gonna be a crap shoot as to which thing happened first.

But a project is a project and you gotta keep at it or it ain’t ever gonna get done.

I was absolutely 100% sure that this was one woman that was gonna keep at it until she could take her fishing pole and march right down that new ramp to the creek and catch a fine big ole catfish just ready to be battered up and fried in the skillet with some hush puppies and cole slaw on the side. It’d make a fine meal for the two of them.

That was just how it was gonna be. I didn’t doubt it for one minute.