The Mount Tabor AME Church and cemetery in Mount Holly Springs has been added to a list of endangered historical resources compiled by Preservation Pennsylvania.
Last used for worship in 1970, this long-abandoned hub of a once-thriving black community was one of four additions for 2018 to the Pennsylvania at Risk list.
The building made the list due to its physical deterioration and because it no longer functions as a church, said Julia Chain, program director for the statewide nonprofit organization.
For a century, the Mount Tabor Church was a sanctuary of faith and morality for the segregated African American community of Mount Holly Springs.
To be eligible for the list, the church and cemetery grounds had to be nominated by the public through a submission process that included reviews by Preservation Pennsylvania staff and their board of directors, Chain said.
This review involved a look at properties and resources under threat of demolition, deterioration or a compromised setting. Threats can take the form of development pressure, vacancy and abandonment, a depressed local economy and limited interest or financial capacity of property owners.
“We are reacting to what the public is telling us,” said Chain, adding that the church stood out among the nominations as a rare and significant resource of African-American history with close ties to a local family.
They could have been grim witnesses to a funeral service, but were instead the guardians of a spiritual revival taking flight in Mount Holly Springs.
A former slave named Elias Van Buren Parker built the church in 1870. He is buried in its cemetery along with other Civil War veterans of the U.S. Colored Troops.
The significance of the church and its cemetery resurfaced recently as part of the Greater Carlisle Heart & Soul Project, which collected the stories of local residents to determine what the community values. One of the residents interviewed was Harriett Gumby, the granddaughter of Parker.
Since word came out on the condition of the building, volunteers have mobilized to preserve the church and its mostly undocumented history. “It seems to be a community story,” Chain said.
Lindsay Varner, director of the Carlisle Heart & Soul Project and the community outreach director of the Cumberland County Historical Society, said making the list means there are now many other people looking out for the Mount Tabor property.
Cumberland County has always been at a crossroads.
“I’m really excited about it,” she said. “It almost sounds like it’s a bad thing, but it makes us a preservation priority.”
Having the church on the list increases statewide awareness of its plight and its value as a case study on how a community can rally to preserve a resource, Chain said. She said this awareness will come in handy in garnering support letters for preservation grant applications.
Already Preservation Pennsylvania has provided technical assistance toward the Mount Tabor church cause. That assistance has taken the form of brainstorming options on how to secure ownership of the property, a vital step in securing grants to preserve the site, Varner said.
She said that because the organization works on projects statewide, staff members can provide insight on what works and what doesn’t from a broader perspective.
Preservation Pennsylvania is the only statewide, private, nonprofit organization dedicated to the protection of historically or architecturally significant resources.
Aside from the Mount Tabor church and cemetery, three other places were added recently to the at-risk list. They are:
- The Cooper House in Nescopeck, Luzerne County, the oldest building in the community;
- The Elmer L. Meyers High School in Wilkes-Barre, Luzerne County, which is under threat of demolition;
- And a former Pennsylvania Railroad tipple in Renovo, Clinton County, which is the only remaining structure of a once-bustling railway yard.