Flat Rock’s St. John in the Wilderness
By Missy Schenck
Nestled on a wooded hilltop above the northern gateway to Flat Rock, sits the Church of St. John in the Wilderness, the oldest Episcopal Church in Western North Carolina. Like a shepherd keeping watch over his flock, St. John’s appears to stand guard over the Village of Flat Rock and its people. For almost 200 years, the whispers of history emanated by the marble plaques and epitaphs in the church and surrounding churchyard tell the stories of the many parishioners who escaped the heat of the Lowcountry to build summer homes in the pioneer settlement around the “great flat rock.”
South Carolina rice planter Charles Baring set out to find a climate that would be agreeable for his wife’s health. He stumbled upon Flat Rock, where he purchased a 400-acre tract of land and built an English country estate, Mountain Lodge, around 1827. The Barings were strong church people and built a private chapel, a custom prevalent among English gentry, on their property. The original wooden structure burned in a wood fire and in 1833 work began on a new chapel built of handmade brick.
According to diocesan history, “The Barings named their chapel St. John in the Wilderness, perhaps with John the Baptist, who ministered in the wilderness of ancient Judea, in mind; perhaps because the vast mountain land lying between eastern Tennessee and upper S.C. was commonly known as The Wilderness.” Another practical theory is that it was named for the Baring family church, St. John in the Wilderness, in the town of Exmouth in southwestern England.
In August 1836, the Barings deeded their chapel to the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina. Twenty members of the Flat Rock summer colony formed a parish under the title of the Church of St. John in the Wilderness with the Reverend Thomas S.W. Mott as its first chaplain. In 1890, when the Missionary District of Asheville established the Diocese of Western North Carolina, St. John’s transferred its affiliation and became the oldest parish in the diocese.
For the first 120 years, the church operated only during the summer months. Church business continued as usual during the off-season, with vestry meetings and various other church functions held in members’ homes in Charleston. By the early 1840s, the congregation outgrew the small chapel and in early 1850 the decision was made to rebuild the church, almost doubling its size. Charleston architect Edward C. Jones designed an expansion of the church, adding the bell tower and entrance on the east end with Ephraim Clayton as the builder. That structure, completed in 1852, is the one that stands today. When the Barings deeded the property to the diocese, they retained ownership of land on top of the hill for their burial plots. To not disturb their graves, the 1852 expansion was built over them.
The Barings are interred in crypts beneath the present building with marble tablets on the south wall of the church. Parishioner David Dethero told this remarkable story about the Barings’s burial place. “Many years ago the church floors were restored. The carpet, pews and old flooring were taken out. We were able to see where the Barings were interred. Susan Baring was buried on the South Side of the church where her pew is and her husband, Charles Baring, was buried at her feet.” Throughout history various renovations and additions including a rectory and parish hall have contributed to the Church of St. John in the Wilderness of today.
Many early churches were built from funds raised by selling or renting pews. This continued through 1960, making St. John’s one of the few churches in the country with pew subscriptions. When potential parishioners learned that pews were rented and no more were available, they were reluctant to join St. John’s. After much discussion with Bishop Henry, St. John’s made the decision to discontinue this practice and to welcome those who desired to be a part of the church and congregation. The vestry also passed approval to maintain services for 12 months of the year. Initially services were conducted by Bishop Henry who later supplied ministers and in 1961 Rev. Walter D. Roberts was called as the first full time — year round rector of St. John’s. The Rev. Roberts was no stranger to Flat Rock. His wife, Zelda Grimke, had ties to both the Lowcountry and Flat Rock. Their daughter, Susan Roberts Bullard, recollects a fond childhood memory. “When we first came to St. John’s all the pews in the church had brass name plates on them. I quickly found the pew with my grandfather, Glenn Drayton Grimke’s, name on it. I always sat in his pew for services.”
The churchyard at St. John’s is of historic significance with graves of first families of our country, descendants of signers of the Declaration of Independence, 19th century politicians, military leaders and heroes and others of note. Although many summer residents attended Lowcountry churches for the majority of the year, they choose St. John’s cemetery as their final resting place. Someone was heard to say, “Flat Rock is the home of my soul.”
Located on the wooded northeastern slope of the church grounds, one finds graves of servants who journeyed with the summer residents to the mountains and worshipped at St. John in the Wilderness. About 100 graves are estimated to be in this burial ground wherein slaves and freedmen were interred from 1836 to 1881. A sizable number of their children are buried in this area, too, which is encircled by a low, stacked stoned wall created by Gerry Hunt. In 2015, a beautiful six foot granite cross, designed by Richard Beatty with stonework by St. John’s member Nelson Motes, was installed at the base of the African-American graveyard. At the dedication of the cross, former rector, John Morton, was quoted as saying, “I was surprised; I thought I would be just witnessing an installation. There was a lot of power, a lot of emotion.”
In the early 2000s, Laurie Schenck and David Dethero initiated a master plan to restore St. John’s historic churchyard. Drayton Hastie of Magnolia Gardens in Charleston gifted $25,000 towards refurbishing the church grounds and the congregation matched Mr. Hastie’s gift for a total of $50,000 for the project. This was just the beginning of an on-going effort to maintain the historic churchyard and its terraced grounds.
Highlights of St. John’s
Generations of families have shared in traditions, weddings, baptisms and funerals at St. John’s, sparking a plethora of memories. Their stories, often not recorded, tell a history of the church and give insight to the cohesiveness of its congregation bound by the common bond of worship. Many of these memories show that even when things go awry, the stories become legendary, wonderful tales.
In the summer of 1945 World War Two ended; Libby Maybank Guerard Wright’s father, Burnett Maybank, was the governor of S.C. and senior warden of St. John’s. Libby related, “My father took Alicia Walker and me to the church and unlocked the door to the bell tower. Alicia and I hung onto the bell ropes and rung them as hard as we could to let everyone know the war had ended. My father’s car had a siren, but he never used it. That day, we rode around Flat Rock and Hendersonville with the siren on to signal the end of the war. I remember on Main Street in Hendersonville there were several trucks of German war prisoners who were working on the farms in the area. They were so excited to be going home. After riding about town, we returned to the church and rang the bells some more.”
Around 1971 there was an arsonist burning schools and churches in Henderson County, recalls Sandy Schenck. “One night, Flat Rock High School burned. The next day the St. John’s congregation came together and decided they needed to protect the church from the arsonist. A group of men, including my father, organized 24-hour watches until the arsonist was caught. The first night as the group assembled, my father asked the men what they were carrying to defend the church. With that, one man spoke up and said, ‘A golf club.’ To which, my father responded, ‘a three iron or a putter!’ The arsonist was eventually caught and turned out to be a volunteer fireman who was always the first one on the scene of the fire.”
Alex King remembers John Eversman, a talented violinist who played for St. John’s for years. Alex sang in the choir and his mother often played her violin alongside. “The lady who sat next to me in the choir was stone deaf and never sang on key. You can imagine how hard that was for the rest of us in the choir,” said Alex. Sandy Schenck recalls a similar experience. “Once in middle school I was sitting in church with my parents. Mr. Eversman began playing his violin and the choir started to sing. A lady in the choir was horribly off key. Her singing lit a fuse in me and I started to giggle. As hard as I tried I couldn’t stop. I climbed under the pew to contain myself and it just got worse. My mother nudged me with her shoes, but as long as the lady sang, I continued to giggle uncontrollably. Finally, the choir finished the hymn and I was able to regain my dignity.” Singing off key wasn’t the only thing the choir was remembered for, says Marty Cornwell. “One Sunday, while the choir was performing, Mr. Eversman’s vestments caught in the fan behind him and tied up in the motor. All of a sudden smoke came up from behind Mr. Eversman and he was on fire. His wife climbed over the choir chairs to rescue him.”
“My first memory of St. John’s was going to Betty Andrew Lee’s wedding. I was five years old. It was raining so hard that the car stalled halfway up the church driveway. There were no stairs up to the church then and the road was dirt. Betty’s father had to carry her up to the church to avoid ruining her white satin slippers and gown. The bridesmaids wore leaf green taffeta dresses and Penny Peterson and Elise Pinckney were bridesmaids,” says Marty Whaley Cornwell. Alice Lowndes Lee, Betty’s daughter, added, “The wedding was August 27, 1949 and the reception was at Hopewood, a gift from the Robertsons, the owners at the time.”
Sallie Peterson White, Penny’s daughter, had this to say. “I do know mother was Betty Lee’s matron of honor. Mother and Daddy drove up from Florida for the wedding with a six-week-old baby who was me. I was christened at St. John’s that same August. My husband Danny and I were married at St. John’s with my uncle Fitz Allison and Walter Roberts as the officiants. The day we got married, there were bats in the bell tower and my bridesmaids were terrified.”
“My favorite memories of St. John’s include summer church with my Dad in our “McCabe pew” toward the back right, said Mary McCabe Dudley. A lovely man who worked on our farm, Reggie Fitzsimmons, was always at the front door greeting everyone. When Dad died, several generous and thoughtful friends donated the window in the church entrance in his memory.”
Bay Chamberlain’s family has been a part of Flat Rock and St. John’s since 1914. Several members of her family have married there and now the fifth generation descendants call St. John in the Wilderness a major part of their lives. “The feeling of continuity I get from participating in a church that is a part of my family’s history is warm and rewarding,” Bay says.
Langdon Edmunds Opperman tells the story of cousin Ross Smyth (Smyth, with no e), a good Presbyterian who spent summers at his grandfather Ellison Smyth’s home, Connemara, and was on the vestry of the Episcopal Church of St. John in the Wilderness at the same time he was on the session of his Charlotte Presbyterian church. Langdon’s sister, Eliza Cleveland, added, “the same was true with A.T. Smythe and uncle Cheves Smythe who grew up at Second Presbyterian in Charleston and went to St. John’s in the summer.”
Throughout the years, Flat Rock has become a vibrant and diverse community of year round and summer residents, some descendants of its early settlers. Rooted in strong historic tradition and continuity, the Church of St. John in the Wilderness has remained the Flat Rock constant where the calmness and peace of its surroundings offer an opportunity for a reprieve. I am reminded this holiday season of the Christmas Eve service at St. John’s, the one night all differences are set aside and everyone is deeply moved by the spirit of the season. At the end of the service the congregation stands in silence and darkness, basking in the glow of flickering candles and the companionship of fellow parishioners singing “Silent Night,” just as they have for generations.
Missy Craver Izard was born and raised in Charleston, South Carolina. She resides in Flat Rock, North Carolina with her husband, Sandy Schenck, where their family runs a summer camp.