Simple gifts of faith and community are making it possible for a Mount Holly Springs woman to preserve the cherished memories of a family legacy.
“God is working with the project for it to be a success,” said Harriett Gumby, a town native. “We could not have accomplished as much as we did.”
A year ago the old AME Zion church on Cedar Street in the borough was just a ramshackle remnant of a once-thriving black neighborhood.
Today the Mount Tabor Church and its cemetery, located along Cedar Street just outside the borough, are the focal point of a unified effort to bring to the forefront a past mostly forgotten except by those deeply touched by the spirit of this one-room sanctuary. It began last spring with the Heart and Soul Project and its mission to record the stories of the Carlisle area. It took on life in May when Gumby agreed to be interviewed and shared her memories of growing up in faith as a black woman in a close-knit community of believers.
Her story inspired others to take action to save the church and its contents for future generations and to mark off and respect the boundaries of the hallowed ground where her grandfather, Elias Van Buren Parker, builder of the church, now rests with other veterans of the U.S. Colored Troops.
“I have a lot of faith,” Gumby said. “It may take a little while, but somebody can give us a helping hand to keep the project moving. I am delighted by what has transpired.”
Heart and Soul
Funded by the Pennsylvania Humanities Council and the South Mountain Partnership, the Heart and Soul Project uses storytelling as a tool to gain an understanding of what is important to a community, said Lindsay Varner, the local project director.
Insight from this process is then translated into action through initiatives and programs that showcase and enhance the community, Varner said. Heart and Soul is an outgrowth of the Orton Family Foundation that has worked with towns across the country.
The Carlisle area was one of four Pennsylvania communities selected to host a pilot program to see how this method could work statewide. In the process of collecting stories from Mount Holly Springs, it was suggested that Harriett Gumby be interviewed.
“It was through her story that we found out about the church,” Varner said. “We started learning more about the family connection.”
With understanding came a sense of urgency prompting the call to action that continued through the rest of the year. It started with a simple wish from an old woman.
“Harriett does not want her family history to be gone,” Varner said. “Her biggest fear is she would die, the church would be demolished and the cemetery would be forgotten.”
Gumby elaborated on this during a recent interview with The Sentinel. As one of four remaining siblings from a family of 11 children, she feels duty-bound to do all she can to preserve the memory of the church, especially now that momentum is on her side.
“This is my flesh and blood,” she said. “It was my grandfather’s legacy that brought the church into existence. That is why I am so concerned.”
Other communities have joined together to preserve old buildings, Gumby said. “Why can’t we do something like that for my grandfather and mother?”
Born into slavery, Elias Parker fought with the U.S. Colored Troops during the Civil War. He later moved to Mount Holly Springs where he built the church.
Gumby has fond memories of her late mother, who was also named Harriett. A homemaker, she was called upon often to administer home remedies to sick children throughout the town. Gumby’s father worked in one of the local paper mills before taking a job as a janitor in Harrisburg.
The black neighborhood that flourished in the post-Civil War years peaked in population around 1900. It then went into decline as local manufacturing closed shop and jobs went elsewhere.
For a time, Gumby lived in New Jersey before she moved back to Mount Holly Springs. Today she and her sister Edna are taking care of their older sister Esther who used to teach Sunday school at the church. Their nephew Tom Gumby remembers sneaking into the building while it was empty to play its organ and piano under the watchful eyes of a portrait of Jesus that seemed to stare out from the wall.
Borough Councilwoman Pam Still was collecting memories on her own before the Heart and Soul Project came on the scene. “I just felt storytelling was important,” she said. “There are a lot of older people in Mount holly Springs. When they are gone, their stories are gone.”
Gumby was first contacted in April. That was when she first mentioned her family connection with the church. Varner sat in on an interview Still conducted with Gumby on May 19. The week prior, Varner had arranged for experts in history, architecture and preservation to visit the Mount Tabor church.
“Once Harriett made us aware of the church, we jumped to action,” Still said. Local residents David Toner, Chuck Crone and Carman James started the work by clearing away poison ivy and some of the vines and tree limbs that covered the church. They had to be careful what to remove because some of the plant life had interweaved itself into the structure.
This preliminary work was necessary because arrangements had been made for the local paper mill to conduct a 3-D laser scan of the church and the cemetery. The goal of the scan was to record the dimensions and the interior layout of the building along with the makeup of the burial ground. This was done over several days in July, Varner said.
She said this information would prove useful if something were to happen to the church and the cemetery. The scan was an opportunity for Mount Holly Springs Specialty Paper to train workers on the use of the equipment while giving something back to the community.
In mid-October, volunteers from Ahold, the parent company of Giant Food Stores, converged on the Mount Tabor Church during the United Way Day of Caring. Their mission was to remove all the furniture and artifacts found in the vestibule, sanctuary and attic while Varner prepared an inventory.
“We then took on the arduous job of cleaning the inside,” Still said. Because there is no electricity in the sanctuary, workers swept the walls and floor the old-fashioned way until a portable generator could be brought in to run a shop vac.
“Since so many windows were missing, there were piles of leaves and dust,” Pam Still said. “For several days we work on cleaning using snow shovels to throw the leaves out of the window.”
Other people soon joined the effort. A neighbor passing by donated some plastic sheeting that the volunteers used to shore up the windows to prevent future debris from drifting into the church.
Unity and solidarity
The clean-up took place from late October to early November, Varner said. Two weeks later, on Nov. 15, a production crew from the Orton Family Foundation visited the church to shoot footage for a publicity film on how the Heart and Soul Project is working to affect positive change in communities.
Local volunteers brought in some of the church pews, the pulpit, some flowers and a wreath for the filming. Interviews were conducted of former church members and organizers of the volunteer effort. The highlight for Pam Still was when she arrived at the church with the film crew.
“As we approached, the song Amazing Grace resonated from inside,” Still said. “Harriett Gumby had started to sing in her beautiful Gospel-like voice. She knew the words to all three verses. All joined in to sing … young, old, African American, white. I wonder how rare in the history of the church this might have been. It just felt right. There was so much unity and solidarity. It was heartwarming.”
The whole experience of the past year has given Gumby renewed hope that someday in some way all the issues associated with the preservation of the church would be resolved.
“It is not about this highfalutin electronic age,” said Gumby, who is in her 80s. “It is that small town attitude that when a neighbor needs a little help, we do what we can to help. This small town attitude still exists. … You just got to find it.”