For a century, the Mount Tabor Church was a sanctuary of faith and morality for the segregated African American community of Mount Holly Springs.
“It gave us a solid foundation,” recalled Carmen Jones who once attended the church on Cedar Street. “This made me who I am. It made my brothers who they are.”
Jones was a source quoted in an application form submitted in early August on behalf of Harriet Gumby — caretaker and the presumed trustee of the AME Zion church her grandfather Elias Parker built in 1870.
Her words are a testament to a kind of revival underway to protect and preserve the building and its contents. That effort took an important step forward recently when the Cumberland County Historical Society approved the application to list the church on the county Register of Historic Places.
To date, the society has placed 35 properties on the register, said David Smith, president of the CCHS board of directors and the chairman of the committee that reviews applications for the program. The properties include Union Fire Company in Carlisle, the Mechanicsburg Church of the Brethren and Barnitz Mill in Dickinson Township.
The register program is intended to promote awareness of the county’s architectural heritage, foster a sense of pride, encourage good stewardship practices and provide a planning tool for communities. The county program is patterned after the National Register of Historic Places which is an entirely separate listing maintained by the U.S. Department of the Interior with stricter nomination and eligibility requirements.
The Mount Tabor Church and adjoining cemetery qualify for placement on the county register because of its close association with the African American community of Cumberland County, Smith said. Architecturally, the church is a good example of an early log cabin AME church from the post-Civil War period with German clapboard siding.
A former slave from Hagerstown, Maryland, Elias Parker arrived in Mount Holly Springs in 1865 after serving with the U.S. Colored Troop during the Civil War. He married Lucinda Johnson of Virginia who also arrived in town after the war and together they had six children, according to a history included in the application.
A Baptist minister, Parker was also a mason and carpenter. He built the church around 1870 and the congregation was active until about 1970 when many of the worshipers moved away to follow work. Today the church is cared for by descendants of Elias Parker and projects are underway to record the history of the site.
The effort to preserve the church and its contents began in May 2016 after Harriet Gumby, Parker’s granddaughter, agreed to be interviewed for the Heart and Soul Project. She shared her memories of growing up in faith as a black woman in a close-knit community of believers.
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. Insight from this process is then translated into action through initiatives and programs that showcase and enhance the community.
Since May 2016, volunteers have cleared away the poison ivy, vines and tree limbs that once covered the abandoned church. Photographs were taken of the church exterior.
Mount Holly Springs Specialty Paper then donated the use of a 3-D scanner to record the dimensions and the interior layout of the building along with the makeup of the cemetery where Parker is buried with other USCT veterans.
Last October, volunteers from Ahold, the parent company of Giant Food Stores, converged on the church during the United Way Day of Caring. They removed all the furniture and artifacts found in the vestibule, sanctuary and attic which were then put into storage.
“It’s an important site,” said Lindsay Varner, director of the Heart & Soul Project. “It’s an amazing piece of history from Mount Holly Springs.”
There have been three bus tours to the church and Dickinson College students earlier this year volunteered to plant shrubs donated by Home Depot to mark the boundaries of each corner of the cemetery.
Its status as a defunct property means the church can go to whoever maintains the building or wants to take ownership. As of Monday, Varner had no update on the status of the church and its ownership. A local attorney has agreed to work pro bono to help the Heart & Soul Project examine the deeds and property documents in order to establish a chain of ownership that could name Harriet Gumby a trustee of the property.
Because the rights of ownership extend to the items removed from the church, the Heart & Soul Project can only keep the items in a safe place. Though the artifacts can be cataloged and examined, conserving the items would have to wait until ownership can be established, Varner said.
Meanwhile, Heart & Soul has collected as much of the history of the Mount Tabor Church as possible not only to preserve it, but to incorporate the findings into the application for its listing on the county register.
This past summer Dorothy Trigg, a graduate student at Shippensburg University, worked as an intern for the Heart & Soul Project to research the church and the cemetery.
“We now have a very solid historical foundation on the history of the church,” Varner said. She added that once ownership is established, work could begin to apply for a state historical marker.
The placement of the church on the county register would add value to future applications seeking grant money to preserve the building and its heritage, David Smith said.
Property owners interested in the county register program should contact the historical society at 717-249-7610 or firstname.lastname@example.org. They may also stop by at the society at 21 N. Pitt St. in Carlisle for an application form that requires detailed information on the history and architecture of the property.
The application is then submitted with an $85 processing fee to the review committee. If approved by the historical society board of directors, the property owner can then apply for a plaque to mount on the building.