From circuit riders to SURGE

St. George’s celebrates 200 years of service

Date Published: 
October 21, 2016

Coastal Point • Tyler Valliant: St. George’s United Methodist Church is celebrating 200 years of serving the community this weekend.Coastal Point • Tyler Valliant: St. George’s United Methodist Church is celebrating 200 years of serving the community this weekend.St. George’s United Methodist Church in Clarksville has served southeastern Sussex County for 200 years — a milestone that will be celebrated on Sunday, Oct. 22, with a special service and meal, attended by members, former pastors and United Methodist Church officials.

When St. George’s was established in 1816, the church was served by circuit riders — pastors who covered a certain territory and would preach in each church every few weeks.

“We Methodists love to talk about the circuit riders,” said St. George’s pastor the Rev. Dr. Robert Kirby. “Since there were not enough clergy to go around, the laity would conduct worship services in many of our early churches until a pastor would come through.”

If a circuit rider was not available, church members directed their own meetings, which by 1816 were being held in an “old house, just 16 feet by 18 feet,” according to a church history compiled by church member Doris Collins.

According to the church history, the first circuit rider to serve St. George’s was none other than Francis Asbury, one of the first two bishops of what was then the Methodist Episcopal Church in the United States. A native of England, Asbury traveled to America as a young man and would travel thousands of miles over the next 45 years, with a mission of bringing the word of God to the faithful.

As the Methodist faith grew in the new nation, it also blossomed in Delaware — in fact, Barratt’s Chapel in Frederica is considered the “cradle of Methodism” because of a meeting there in 1784 between British clergyman Thomas Coke and Asbury, who celebrated the sacraments of the church and considered the future of the church in America there.

“This is a very special area of the United States to be Methodist, with all the rich heritage and culture at our disposal. There are times when I openly wonder what our founder, John Wesley, would think if he were alive today,” Kirby said.

Around 1820, St. George’s would see its first church built, after a man by the name of George P. Johnson donated an acre of land “in a thick pine woods on the west side of the [Clarksville] branch” for that purpose.

Best estimates are that the first St. George’s was located about a half-mile from the current location, off of what is now Holt’s Landing Road, near the Sylvan Vue community, Collins said. Although there was a cemetery there, Collins said she believes all but one grave from the old church graveyard was moved to the new church cemetery.

That first place of worship was built log-cabin style, of trees felled by the men of the church, and measured 20 feet by 25 feet, according to church records. When it was replaced by a new church a few decades later, the old church was torn down by its new owner, Will Steele, who bought it for $10. Steele used the timbers to build a barn, which reportedly stood until 1976, when the owners had it burned down.

That church building was enlarged to twice its original size in 1850. Collins’ history contains this description of the completed structure: “The building had a 10-foot pitched roof, with hewed frame, shingled walls and eight windows and shutters that could be bolted when not in use.” When a “gallery” was built for use by “colored people” as part of the 1850 expansion, the posts used for supporting the gallery soon drew ire from the women of the church, whose hoop skirts would get caught on them. So the posts on one side were removed.

To meet the needs of its ever-expanding congregation, a new church was built in 1880 — the first version of the church building at the current location. Located on 1.5 acres of land donated by John R. Steele, the building was paid for by contributions from 250 men, women and children of the church, with donations ranging from 10 cents to $400. The new building was raised on June 9, 1880.

That project apparently had its challenges, according to a letter written by Joshua A. Townsend when the decision was made to go ahead with the construction.
Coastal Point • Kerin Magill: Members of the planning committee for St. George’s United Methodist Church’s bicentennial celebration gather at the church. Pictured, from left, are: front row, Chris Kirby, Carolyn Newman, Wayne Bowden; second row, the Rev. Robert Kirby, Doris Collins, Lana Bowden, Sue Rothenhoefer; back row, Chris Bailey and Richard Rothenhoefer.Coastal Point • Kerin Magill: Members of the planning committee for St. George’s United Methodist Church’s bicentennial celebration gather at the church. Pictured, from left, are: front row, Chris Kirby, Carolyn Newman, Wayne Bowden; second row, the Rev. Robert Kirby, Doris Collins, Lana Bowden, Sue Rothenhoefer; back row, Chris Bailey and Richard Rothenhoefer.
“We have been worshipping in an old church for many years now, and with the help of the Lord, we intend to build a new one,” the letter said. “The land is poor and so are the people. It will be quite hard to build a larger church with corn 50 cents a bushel and eggs 10 cents a dozen and chickens 8 cents a pound,” Townsend’s letter stated. “These are our staple articles, but we hope when the cornerstone box is opened, times will be better.” (When the cornerstone was eventually opened, the contents of the box were water-damaged.)

On a positive note, Townsend also observed that “our Sunday-school is prospering with John R. Steele as superintendent.”

Although the new church building contained an organ, not everyone was a fan of the tones it produced, according to Collins’ history. One member of the congregation, Gideon Lynch, is said to have walked out of the church the first time the organ was played, and church lore has it that he said “They might as well have the devil in there with his fiddle.”

A church belfry was built in 1911 by Hank Moore of Ocean View, with two bells in it — a “mourning bell” made of wood and a metal bell. In 1928, further expansion was needed, and between then and 1930, the church was rebuilt.

That is the point at which the stained glass windows were added, at a cost of $150 each. The current Sunday-school room was added and a basement was dug out by hand, using mules pulling a drag scoop.

Other expansions and renovations have occurred over the years, including an addition in 1961, with eight elementary classrooms, a study for the pastor and new restrooms. In 1970, the story goes, that shortly after air conditioning was completed, during a “powerful” sermon by Rev. Melvin Tingle, smoke began pouring out of air conditioning vents. Tingle reportedly said, “Maybe it was the devil, as he always tries to stop people from telling the truth.”

In 1995, the church steeple was found to be in serious need of repair, so the St. George’s church bells were silenced for about a month while the work was done. Two years later, the steeple, which had always been topped with a weathervane, finally received a stainless steel cross at its apex.

Charles Marvel, 90, is a member of one of the earliest families to attend St. George’s. His parents, Clarence and Edith Marvel, were born in the late 1800s and while both attended after their marriage, his mother’s family had attended all her life. Edith Marvel’s mother died very young, he said, but her father — Charles Marvel’s grandfather, Charles S. Calhoun — had been a member of St. George’s for many years.

Marvel recalled that, when he was a child, “there was no television, or tablets, or anything like that,” and that church was where people went to socialize.

“The main thing when I was growing up was our church,” he said. “Church was our main attraction, and everybody knew everybody.”

A favorite memory of Marvel’s was the ice cream socials that were held after Ladies’ Aid meetings.

He also recalled befriending a particular boy at the church, Frank Baker, whose father served as pastor from 1934 to 1940. Although Baker’s family moved from the area, the two remained friends and, to this day, they often talk on the phone and still occasionally enjoy fishing together.

As an adult, Marvel said, he enjoyed singing in the St. George’s choir for more than 50 years. He credited former choir director Ruth Koenig with making the choir something special.

“We had a fantastic choir for a little, small church” he said.

On a more spiritual note, Marvel said he credits the church with giving his life direction.

“I thank the Lord every once in a while for all the preachers and ministers we had,” he said. Thanks to them, Marvel said, he feels he was “grounded in the right Word. They taught us what was right and what was wrong and how to live our lives.”

As it enters its third century, St. George’s continues a strong outreach into the community. Particularly strong is its service to the prison community, with several programs serving those currently imprisoned, those preparing to end their time in prison and families of those who are incarcerated.

St. George’s Needy Family Fund uses donations from the congregation to provide for those who are having difficulty paying for rent, food, fuel or other needs.

Continuing to seek out ways to reach out to its community, members in 2010 began to look for inspiration for ways to engage area youth in the life of the church. Doug Griffith had begun a successful program using the gym at Lord Baltimore Elementary School that grew to around 40 youths. At the urging of Ruth and Herman Koenig, an old garage at the former parsonage was moved onto church property for use by the youth group, which was named SURGE.

The church’s children’s ministry, called VOLT, was created in 2011, out of a desire to offer a more “interactive” children’s program. Through the program, which features live skits designed to help the children apply Bible stories to their own lives, the St George’s Sunday-School program has grown.

St. George’s celebration of its 200th anniversary will include many former pastors, as well as Bishop Peggy Johnson and District Superintendent Rev. Dr. Kyung Hee Sa of the United Methodist Church’s Dover District. A special Sunday-morning service will be held at 10:30 a.m., which will be open to the public, followed later in the day by the bicentennial service and meal at 2 p.m.