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.
Three vultures – a mother and two young – once kept a close vigil over the volunteers working to save what remained of the Mount Tabor Church on Cedar Street.
Lindsay Varner recalled how the birds sat perched on the branch of a tree that had grown into the log and panel walls of this one-room cradle of faith for a once-thriving black neighborhood.
“Harriett Gumby said they were protecting the church,” said Varner, director of the greater Carlisle Heart and Soul Project. “They watched us the whole time.”
A lot of progress had been made since Varner first sat in on the interview Pam Still conducted in May of Gumby whose grandfather, Elias Parker, had built the old AME Zion church around 1870.
Saving the artifacts
There were tense moments on Oct. 14 when employees of Ahold, the parent company of Giant Food Stores, donated their time to help the church during the United Way Day of Caring.
Over the years, water had poured down a large hole in the roof causing part of the floor to fall through. There is a crack in the foundation. Vines and trees, over the span of four decades, had weakened the walls making the dilapidated structure unsafe for a congregation.
“We were a little worried the flue for the old stove was the only thing holding up the ceiling,” Varner said. Yet everything had to be removed from the building if its memories had any hope of salvation.
The fear was another heavy snow like last winter could cause the roof to collapse and severely damage what artifacts remained inside the church from when it closed around 1970.
“Because the church is in such bad condition, we wanted to get all the artifacts out of it,” Varner said. “It essentially looked as though they had shut the door and left everything there. The pulpit, the pews, the chairs, the hymnals lying open. … It was all still there.” There were even hand fans from the last worship service.
Certain rules had to be followed for the safety of volunteers who braved the dust and dirt without complaint, Varner said. “We were always cautious about the number of people that were in the building. We made sure there were no more than four or five.”
Working together, the volunteers removed all the furniture and objects from the sanctuary, vestibule and attic. These artifacts included boxes of paperback workbooks that had been distributed to children attending Sunday school. There was also the lesson planner once kept by Harriett’s sister Ethel who used to be a Sunday school teacher.
The workbooks were probably standard issue for AME congregations, said Varner, adding that many are in a fragile state due to exposure to the elements and to mice eating the paper. The workbooks include the names of many of the students who were enrolled in the Sunday school – a valuable source of information for researchers trying to create a congregation list for the lost church.
Because it is the only part of the building with electrical wiring, it appears that the vestibule had been added onto the church after the sanctuary had been built, Varner said. “We knew the oil lamps had been stolen off the walls, but there were enough pieces in the attic to make a whole lamp.”
Beneath two layers of replacement carpet, volunteers found remnants of the original 19th century carpeting that once covered the floor. As each artifact was removed, it was recorded in an inventory and loaded onto a truck trailer for safekeeping.
Use of the trailer was donated by James Ward of Milton, Northumberland County, who owns a trucking company. Ward has a great-grandfather buried in the black cemetery associated with the Mount Tabor Church.
“His father always told him stories about moving from Mount Holly Springs to Milton back in the 1930s,” Michelle Ward said of her husband James. Her niece was doing research on ancestry.com when she came across a reference to the relative being buried in the cemetery. This prompted the Ward family to visit Mount Holly Springs where they discovered another family tie to the church.
One of the artifacts salvaged from the building was a hymnbook signed by Walter, the grandfather of James. Aside from the trailer, the Ward family has offered to take ownership of the church. “We will do whatever we can do to preserve and restore it,” Michelle Ward said.
Right now, ownership is the big issue facing the Mount Tabor Church and cemetery, Varner said. Though tax records list the building as being owned by the AME Church, the denomination has no official record of ownership, according to her.
As for the cemetery, it was once under the care of Shank & Miller, a Mount Holly Springs business that no longer exists. For years the Gumby family has been paying someone to mow the cemetery grounds because they have relatives buried there.
Its status as a defunct property means the church can go to whoever maintains the building or wants to take ownership, Varner said. She said that while the Gumby family would qualify for ownership, they would have to pay taxes which would be a hardship for three elderly sisters on fixed incomes.
“We have a family that is willing to take over ownership,” Varner said of the Wards. “We are working on finding a lawyer who is willing to do pro bono work. We can’t do anything with the property until ownership is established.”
The rights of ownership extend to the items removed from the church, she added. “We can only put the objects in a safe place. We can’t start conserving the items.” The artifacts can be cataloged and examined.
The same volunteers who removed items from the church planted shrubs marking the boundaries of the cemetery. “We don’t know how many people are buried there,” Varner said.
The current estimate is about 50 including modern burials of the Gumby family along with several veterans of the US Colored Troops from the Civil War. The Calloway family has a rectangular buried plot covered in stones. Most likely the rest of the burial spots were marked with wooden crosses that have since deteriorated.
In July, a crew from Mount Holly Springs Specialty Paper used a 3-D laser scanner to record the interior layout of the building, including the placement of all its furniture and artifacts. Steven Burg, a history professor at Shippensburg University, has taken photographs of the church exterior.
“If anything does happen to the church, we have a scan and can make a model of it,” Varner said referring to possible inclement weather this winter. She said that, with the church being in such dire condition, any effort to save it must happen soon.
If saving the whole building proves to be impractical or too expensive, there are other options available to preserve the memory of the site and its significance to local history.
One option is to remove the church roof, shore up the floor and bring the walls down to a level stable enough to install picnic tables and interpretative signage, Varner said. This would allow the public to walk inside the church footprint without fear of a structural collapse.
This option could incorporate the construction materials and methods used to build the church, which stands out architecturally as a good example of an early log cabin AME church from the post-Civil War period. Varner said the church could be included in a scenic bike trail featuring sites associated with the Underground Railroad and the Civil War.
Another option would involve having a museum come in to dismantle the church piece-by-piece and then recreate it inside an exhibit area, Varner said. This would allow the public to examine the building in a safe environment.
Yet another option is to demolish the building and then use the 3-D scan and photographs to create an historic marker and other interpretative features that do not require the presence of the church.