Earlier this week, I tweeted a Roadtrippers.com blog post about abandoned churches here in the Midwest, and that tweet got a little conversation about abandoned houses of worship going on Twitter.
There’s something about seeing an empty, crumbling church—a sacred place returning to nature—that gives most people more pause than any other sort of abandoned building; again, I think this has to do with its purpose, and the theological idea (fact, really) that it is not the building so much that is the church, but the people gathering together in it that make it what it is. The building itself is merely a gathering place—but it’s also a universally-recognized symbol, regardless of its original denomination and whether or not this can even be determined.
At any rate, the chatting of course reminded me of St. John’s Baptist in Stotesbury, West Virginia, an abandoned church I photographed in early 2009 (Stone Age!), having become somewhat enchanted by its remote location and certainly by its state of disrepair after accidentally stumbling across knowledge of its existence thanks to an image I stumbled across on Google Maps, of all things, while planning a trip to visit a friend in Nashville. That blurry glimpse, supplied by someone who’d apparently gotten lost, but not so much that they didn’t recognize beauty when they saw it, grabbed hold of my imagination and had me insisting to Hubby that we stop by on our way to Tennessee.
Strangely enough (to me, the car photographer), the photograph of St. John’s at the top of this post, which I took from a mine road above what is left of Stotesbury, is my best-selling (and frankly, most-stolen—which I’m decidedly not happy about) image. But it is that pretty, crumbling country church in a West Virginian holler that people truly love and hang upon their walls; I think that just as it spoke to and touched me, it has done the same for others of all faiths and even lack thereof.
Shall we visit her?
Stotesbury is actually the home town of a man for whom about 50% of things in West Virginia are (inexplicably) named for—Robert Byrd, a KKK recruiter. Lovely, I know—and that will be driven home even more as we learn about St. John’s.
The mining town is tucked in between mountains, reachable by serpentine roads literally clinging to the sides of the Appalachian foothills; you must be actively seeking it or desperately lost to find it…or what is left of it. Stotesbury, a company town, was founded and built by a mining company; when the mines closed since the 1960s, there was little reason for people to stay.
St. John’s Baptist is at the far end of the main road, along which you’ll see empty houses once filled with the sounds of family life; a few families do remain, as evidenced by the pack of dogs that charged the Chevy while we drove toward the church, but not many. The only people we did see—heading to the other church in town, an ugly, windowless, charmless box of a building—were quite elderly. No doubt in ten or so years, no one at all will remain.
St. John’s itself is, fittingly, set upon a slight hill, at the end of a curving drive now well-overgrown. The church is a pretty, wooden clapboard country-style church, white with peaked, many-paned windows, but really quite simple, nary a florid note on the place. I suspect it’s the sort of church we see in our mind’s eye reading history books and stories from the days of America’s settling until the midpoint of the 20th century.
Its prettiness and charm hide an ugly truth, though (however, not one that should surprise us, as this is “KKK Byrd’s” home town). St. John’s Baptist was built in 1918 by the E.E. White Coal Company solely for the town’s and greater Raleigh County’s blacks to attend. Yes…a segregated town. To stand before this lovely old church and know this was…well, no doubt you, too, are shaking your head.
As you can see, in the spring of ’09 St. John’s was already in a precarious position, its congregation having left it to the creation of the One they worshiped in the early 1980s. Though the nearly three-story steeple stood high, the bell had long ago been stolen. St. John’s roof had partially collapsed into the sanctuary (causing Hubby to immediately put the kibosh on my going inside); the windows were completely glassless; the rotting steps reminded me of, as Chevy Chase jokes about a bridge in “Funny Farm”, termites holding hands.
Never again would a glowing bride glide joyously down them after gracing the front door; no more children would scamper up and down them after service, waiting for their parents; black-clad mourners would not make their way out of the church, having received some comfort within.
Mildew and grime crept across the white clapboard; we could see the back side of the interior lathe just standing in the woods gazing up at the church. Even some of the names on the cornerstone of the church had been completely worn away, something someone apparently tried to rectify by re-carving them so they’d not be utterly lost.
Behind St. John’s, headstones in the cemetery are nearly completely obscured by the wood—it was in almost stumbling over one that I realized a churchyard even existed. Yes…the churchyard, too, is segregated, at least based upon what I’ve been able to find via reading. Apparently some people of the town could not bear to be with those of simply a different skin colour even in death.
All around the church, on the mossy earth, bits and pieces of St. John’s lay about: the siding, glass, and of course, a bit of litter (though happily, not much). Filthy shreds of once-white curtains slumped out of the basement windows, as if gaining a final few gasps of breath. The mess was quite a contrast to the petite purple flowers creeping along the ground and over bits of clapboard toward the church.
At some point, the National Trust for Historic Preservation listed St. John’s as an “Endangered Building”, and preservationists began seeking rescue of St. John’s early due to its historic value and, yes, charm—however painful and infuriating, St. John’s was worthy of preservation and perhaps even restoration, if that were been possible. As each season passed, the church was obviously less and less likely—because preservationists would be less able—to be saved for future generations of visitors.
Still, reading about the church and preservation efforts upon returning home from my trip, I could not help but wonder if preservation would truly help—Stotesbury can be difficult to get to and does not offer much more than the opportunity to visit a town where humans and ghosts live together. There is no cafe, not even a filling station, and I’m not sure that even a restored church would be enough to bring additional tourist-serving businesses into town; even Stotesbury’s school had been allowed to rot and tumble to the earth.
Unfortunately, we’ll never know, for just months after I photographed St. John’s—hoping to return perhaps in the fall for some lovely autumn shots of the chuch—St. John’s finally gave way to time, neglect, and nature when a storm caused its roof to cave in. The last I heard (via Flickr—my photos of St. John’s have captured others’ imaginations as well), the steeple remained standing, but had begun to lean in a bit.
As you can tell, I’ve not been able to return to Stotesbury to visit what is left of St. John’s. This saddens me for the obvious reason, but also because visiting St. John’s, even in its ravaged state, was a remarkable experience—not just seeing it with my own eyes, but…well, experiencing it. St. John’s, its cemetery, the land immediately surrounding it was incredibly peaceful and felt so safe, as if I were in a fortress, secure from any and all danger. It was actually comforting to simply stand there gazing upon this sacred place.
More than once I’ve written about how a place “feels”; I can’t help but think that buildings sometimes “hold onto”the events and people that inhabited them, good and bad, and St. John’s was such a place. It almost seemed to welcome us, two quietly interested and respectful visitors, as if it were lonely, having spent so many years so full of love and life. It seems that even vandals, for the most part, left St. John’s alone, and that’s well enough, as nature caused more than enough destruction, eventually bringing this building to its death.
Sadly, I’ve had a very difficult time finding photographs of a pre-abandonment St. John’s—as in I’ve found none. All that seem to remain are photos of the church in an increasing state of disrepair and collapse, much like my own; one day, I knew, the photographs would show only the foundations…sure enough, this has come true. Tara Chavez posted (during one of my sick times, so I did not see it when it was new) this photograph of St. John’s: just the foundations, from May. I’m not sure what happened, for there’s not even rubble remaining.
Yes, I choked up a bit. Over a building.
But what a loss.
Places and situations like St. John’s Baptist are one of (many of?) the reasons I’m a documentary photographer; preservation does not and cannot always happen, and it’s those like myself who can not only bring the world to these lonely, dying places, but we do, somewhat intangibly, preserve them for all with our images.
I hope you’ve enjoyed our little trip to Stotesbury, despite its very sad ending.
All of my Stotesbury photos (most are in this post, but there wasn’t quite enough room for everybody!) can be seen here. Several are available in the shop, but if you’ve seen one in this post that you’d like for your own, don’t hesitate to send me an email or a note via the shop.