Wanted: A congregation to fill the pews of a small, historic church in northern Mississippi.
That’s the aim of Nancy Mikell, who is in the midst of finding funds for the preservation of the Old Philadelphia Church in Red Banks, Miss., a farming community of Memphis, Tenn.
Mikell’s ancestors, Mr. and Mrs. William S. Parks, gave the land for the church as a gift on Sept. 6, 1886, and it still sits on that site today after being in two prior locations since its organization in 1844. It originally was located a mile west of Red Banks on the Castleberry Place and then on a tract of land several miles north of Red Banks that was gifted to the former North Mississippi Presbytery by Alfred O. Canon in 1851. After the church was partially destroyed in the 1860s, the cemetery on the Canon property was left behind, but the handmade bricks and salvageable timbers were hauled by mule train to the corner of Red Banks Road and Harris Lane.
Vacant for several years, Mikell wants to renovate the church and see a congregation occupy it to offer regular services.
“I’d like to make sure the building is protected and preserved. Our family and descendants of the Canons really want a congregation to use the church,” said Mikell, who lives in Charleston, S.C., and has been coordinating efforts with fellow family members, friends and residents of the Red Banks community to restore the church. “The church has started to deteriorate, but with roof, window and foundation repair, and a few cosmetic fixes, it will be ready to function as a meeting place for a congregation.”
Regaining the property
The church reverted to Mikell and her family after it had been the property of Holly Springs Presbyterian Church from 1998-2011.
It was deeded to Holly Springs by the Presbytery of St. Andrew in the late 1990s and was sold when Holly Springs no longer wanted to keep it. When Mikell learned the property had been sold, which very few people knew about, she was dismayed and wanted to see the church building remain a place to worship, to preserve the building and its history. Another Presbyterian church in the county also was sold about the same time, and it was torn down completely, a fate Mikell and her family did not want to happen to the little red church that many families have called home.
There was a clause in the deed when the Parks family made the donation nearly 130 years ago that indicated the property would revert to descendants of the family if the church building and property were not occupied by a congregation or no longer used for church purposes.
Mikell went through legal proceedings for about a year before the property was returned to her family by a court ruling.
A special place
The Old Philadelphia Church always held a special place in Mikell’s heart, not only because it was built on land given by her family but also because she was christened there, married there and was the church organist.
“Our family wants to preserve this building and re-establish the church. That’s what we want to see happen,” she said. “The church was always a part of the community, a centerpiece there for many years. It not only meant a lot to me but to the families who went to that church through the years.”
Descendants of the Parks family are working to raise the necessary funding to refurbish the church.
Often likened to small churches that dot the landscape of the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia or the mountains of western North Carolina, Old Philadelphia is situated on an appealing piece of land in a grove of trees that is nestled between a Baptist church to the southwest and a Methodist church to the east. It is a registered National Presbyterian Historical Site.
Back in the 1950s, Mikell’s father took an entire summer to restore the church from top to bottom. The family has a scrapbook that belonged to her father’s sister, Marie Goodman Jenkins. It records donations of 50 cents to several dollars and the notes that accompanied the donations.
It will take a similar effort to restore the old church. The roof and foundation are in need of the greatest renovations, and the beautiful old glass in some of the windows was broken several years ago. However, Mikell is confident the church can be restored and put to use as it was intended to be.
“We are contacting relatives and descendants of families who have been associated with the church or the community and asking for donations; we are just beginning our fundraising efforts,” she said. “The church has come back to our family, and we realize we will need to work hard to save it and bring in a congregation. We want to be able to offer it to a congregation that would hold services and preserve the structure for posterity.”
Putting people in pews
While she would like to see Presbyterians occupy the facility, Mikell is open to the idea of other denominations worshiping there, toying with the idea of letting multiple denominations use the facility on designated Sundays, all in an attempt to attract Christians to attend services in the small community. That was how Old Philadelphia was used in the 1800s. Several congregations met there before each had their own building. The Presbyterians held services once a month during her childhood in the building. The Methodist congregation had services twice monthly in their church, and the Presbyterians for many years hosted the Thanksgiving service for all denominations.
“It would be wonderful if a Presbyterian congregation filled the pews, but we are open to any denomination. Our goal is for this building to continue as a church,” Mikell explained.
“This structure was built to be used as a church” she continued. “We are striving to hold on to the vision our forefathers had for this place of worship.”
For more information about the Old Philadelphia Church, contact Nancy Mikell by email at email@example.com.