Facebook comments over the years about the church:
“Watch out for mosquitoes, but it is a great place.”
“It is a really neat stop!”
“Tiny, but powerful. Don’t miss it!”
“This is a must see if you are traveling this way.”
“Don’t blink or you will miss it. The guestbook had already been signed six times that day and it was still early. Kinda cool!”
“I almost didn’t stop but am glad we did.”
“Oh, no, tell me it isn’t so.” “Awful, lowdown act!” “Why?” “Terrible news!”
These are reactions I’ve heard from people about the Smallest Church in America near Eulonia burning last weekend.
When the fire department arrived, the church was in flames. They were extinguished quickly, but the building was so small, it was destroyed. Only portions of the cinderblock walls remain.
The sign near Highway 17 just south of Liberty County reads, “Smallest Church in America. Christ’s Church in Memory Park. Visitors welcome. Non-denominational. Built in 1949 by Mrs. Agnes Harper and deeded to Jesus Christ.”
Memory Park also has magnificent oaks, draped with long strands of Spanish moss. Until Nov. 27 the wooden cross on top of the church was also draped with moss that dropped from the trees. This was one of my favorite pictures. It reminded me of purple cloth draped on a cross at Easter.
Mrs. Harper, a widow, ran a small grocery store. She saw many weary travelers stopping on their way to and from Florida. Long before Interstate 95, Highway 17 was the main route between Florida and the Northeast.
Her dream was to build a small church where they could stop, eat a snack, walk their dog or go into the church for a few moments of prayer.
She was not rich, and people tried to talk her out of building it, saying she didn’t have the money to build a church fine enough for God. But, using her own funds, she finished it in 1949. She invited everyone — locals and tourists — to worship. The 10-foot by 15-foot church had 12 chairs and a pulpit, large enough for the 12 disciples and Jesus.
There were two stained-glass windows on each side and three in the back. The windows were imported from England. A glass star in the roof allowed sunlight in.
The church was so small, people said it was place to rub elbows with God.
To assure the church wouldn’t be sold after her death, Mrs. Harper deeded it to Jesus Christ.
The church was free and open all the time. A sign asked visitors to turn the light out when they left.
The first time I visited in the early 1970s, it was not as nice as it was a few years ago when we visited with our Glennville Calvary Baptist Sunday school class. In 1983, The McIntosh County Chamber of Commerce adopted it and made a lot of repairs and pledged continuing support.
It probably was the smallest church in America when it was built, but many others have popped up since then. In fact, Cross Island Chapel in Oneida, New York, measures 51 ionchdes by 81 inches. But services cannot be held in it.
Inside the McIntosh County church was a donation box for its upkeep and a guestbook, which on any random day would have signatures from travelers from Georgia, Massachusetts, Oregon and even as far away as Germany. Even losing the guestbook was terrible.
Over the years, visitors have left small statutes, angels, teddy bears, flowers, candles, mementos, photos and notes pinned or propped up on the windowsills and walls. It has truly been a place of solace for thousands.
Many couples have wed at the church. In fact, a wedding took place there the evening before the fire.
On New Year’s Day 1998, Toni Miller and her husband Wayne were married there. She had visited the church many times since moving to the area, and she knew she wanted her wedding there. Wayne built the beautiful, appropriately sized bell tower, and they put it up for the ceremony. It looked undamaged by the fire.
Many people gathered there the morning of the fire to stare at the blackened remains.
The State Fire Marshal’s Office has declared it to be arson, and a $10,000 reward is being offered for information leading to an arrest and conviction whoever set the fire. The safe for donations looked as if a torch had been used to try cut into it, though it was still intact on the wall.
Nearby South Newport Baptist Church members said they want to rebuild their neighboring church. Funds have been pouring in, along with donations of labor and materials.
They say it will be rebuilt before Christmas. Amen!