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Beyond the marker

Sacred Spaces

Mike looked up through the windshield of his white Prius. The yellow Kobelco behemoth, its massive articulated arm enveloping his small-in-comparison car from side-to-side, stood silent. Certainly the standoff Mike initiated this early May morning would be over soon … the failure of company headquarters to communicate a recent change of plans to an eager work crew on the ground would be resolved any minute with a brief telephone call.

Holding his cell phone to his ear, Mike stepped out of his Prius, the events of the last two days racing through his mind, as he again reached out for verification of the agreement he and the local community had reached with CSX. This was only the third morning since learning the news that the train depot had been slated for demolition by the railroad, but the subsequent whirlwind of activity had seemingly resulted in the tiny community of Abbeville rallying to pull out all the stops to save this treasured piece of the town’s history.

The day before, Mike had called in a building mover to verify that the wooden structure covered in red brick veneer dating back to 1890 was sound enough to move. Community leaders worked together to locate a suitable site upon which to move the building. Plans were made, budgets were drawn and hopes were raised. When Mike finally put his head on his pillow that night, he had been assured by the CSX hierarchy that demolition of the building would be halted to give the community a chance to move the Abbeville Depot out of the railroad’s right-of-way.

But at 4:45 a.m. the next morning, whispers from the town’s grapevine gave Mike the heads up that demolition equipment had been moved onto the site. After racing to the depot from his home in Prosperity an hour away and parking his car beneath the backhoe’s imposing arm, Mike frantically continued calling the numbers of the CSX officials with whom he had reached the agreement. As the minutes ticked slowly by, an SUV driven by one of Abbeville’s stalwart community leaders pulled along side the backhoe, even as members of the small town arrived to lend their support to the cause. The two vehicles blocking its way were clearly no match for the huge backhoe, but Mike was certain that once the lines of communication were re-established, the situation would resolve itself.

As he paced the grounds around the depot waiting for CSX officials to convey their recent decision to its crew, Mike said of those tense moments, “All that stood between the depot and demolition was our presence to ensure that what we were promised would be carried out.”

At 7:45 a.m. the local police were called in to remove Mike and the others from the premises.

Then at 7:50 a.m., Mike was told the crew on the ground had finally received word to cancel the demolition and remove the equipment.

Handcuffs averted, the people of Abbeville breathed a collective sigh of relief.

The executive director of Preservation South Carolina, Michael Bedenbaugh, frequently pauses during his busy, sometimes frantic, workweek to leaf through his copy of South Carolina’s Sacred Spaces, by Bill Fitzpatrick. The book’s tagline reads, “Seventy churches and temples that helped shape the state’s history and culture.” Mike knows all too well that the business of preserving historic buildings can be a complicated endeavor, especially when it involves historic rural churches and synagogues with only a handful of congregants … or no congregants at all. Many of the rural sacred spaces across the state are one natural disaster, one act of vandalism, or one additional bit of unchecked deterioration away from oblivion.

When author/photographer/entrepreneur, Bill Fitzpatrick, began his journey crisscrossing the state in 2010 to capture the images of the state’s sacred spaces that evolved into his beautiful coffee table book, he eventually had an epiphany. As he read the historic marker in front of each of the holy places he encountered, then looked beyond it at the structures, it slowly occurred to him that an official National Register of Historic Places designation doesn’t equal preservation. That message became perfectly clear when Bill first gazed upon Mulberry Methodist Church in Cherokee County. The church, built in 1880, is a local example of one of the most significant social changes precipitated by black freedom — the establishment of independent black churches, even denominations. Despite its historic significance, the church and its grounds are being overseen of by just one volunteer, Moose Littlejohn, a descendant of the church’s original founders. Moose does what he can.

Bill said of his shocking realization, “Mulberry Methodist and many of the rural churches and temples I’ve photographed are in dilapidated condition and no one seems to have the resources to preserve what was important enough to place on the National Register of Historic Places. They can’t take federal money, they can’t take state money and there’s no private money available to them, leaving these sacred spaces in purgatory. When I was standing there looking at Mulberry Methodist I remember thinking, ‘Whose going to take care of this one?’ It occurred to me in that moment that tree limbs have more rights in Charleston than historic properties have in rural South Carolina.”

The call for the preservation of our sacred culture is urgent. Mike, with the help of his small but dedicated staff, works to develop tailor-made preservation plans that benefit all involved parties to the greatest degree possible. Sometimes these historic sites can be saved, but sometimes they can’t. Those wonderful moments when there’s a victory to celebrate is what keeps him in the job.

By the time Mike joined community leaders at the local diner for a celebratory breakfast, a brief pause before the real work of raising the money to move the Abbeville Depot began, he felt the stress of the last three days lift, giving him a much-needed chance to catch his breath. A few bites into his breakfast, his cell phone rang. It was one of his contacts at CSX informing him that the decision had been made to proceed with the demolition and there was nothing anyone could do to stop it. Mike raced the quarter of a mile back to the depot site just in time to witness the yellow behemoth ripping a portion of the roof off the town’s treasured train depot. He was devastated by the destruction of this historic site that meant so much to the people of this small town. A short time later, this part of Abbeville’s history was reduced to rubble.

With the loss of the train depot still fresh in the minds of Abbeville residents, all eyes have now turned to historic Trinity Episcopal Church, one of the town’s most beloved sacred spaces.

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