Grace-Calvary Episcopal Church was established in 1838 as Grace Protestant Episcopal Church. It was the sixth Episcopal parish to be established in Georgia. The church building, virtually unchanged today, is the second oldest Episcopal Church building in Georgia. Habersham County was formed from two Cherokee Cessions, one on July 8, 1817, and the other on February 27, 1819. Gold was discovered nearby in the Nacoochee Valley in 1828 and the last of the Cherokees were forcibly removed in 1838. During this period, wealthy Georgians (and especially those from Savannah and the lowcountry) began to discover the natural beauty of the region and the mild summer climate, thus becoming an ideal place to spend the summer and escape the variety of tropical diseases and fevers that made their annual appearance.
Clarkesville was the first major resort town in north Georgia. The town was founded in 1823 shortly after a treaty with the Cherokees that placed the area outside Indian Territory. It quickly became a village of hotels and boarding houses for prosperous coastal and lowland families, who began coming to the mountains during the summer to escape yellow fever and other diseases rampant in low country communities like Savannah and Charleston. These families often combined a profession like medicine or the law with the ownership of large coastal plantations. They came to the North Georgia Mountains for the summer with their slaves— whom they called “servants”— on a journey that took at least a week. They often stayed in the mountains for as long as six months, and some built permanent summer homes in the area.
Most of these “summer folk” were either Presbyterian or Episcopalian. Although an “Old School” Presbyterian church had been established in Clarkesville in 1832, many Presbyterians attended church with the Episcopalians until 1849 when the Clarkesville Presbyterian Church building was completed. 1847 church records show that one individual was both a member of the Grace Episcopal vestry and a trustee of the Presbyterian Church. Grace Protestant Episcopal Church was founded for a specific purpose: so that there would be enough parishes in Georgia for the state to have its own bishop. The Diocese of Georgia had been established in 1823; but until 1840 it was overseen by the Bishop of South Carolina. In 1838, there were only five Episcopal parishes in Georgia: Christ Church, Savannah; Christ Church, St. Simon’s Island; St. Paul’s Church, Augusta; Christ Church, Macon; and Trinity Church, Columbus. There was no Episcopal church in Atlanta, which was still called Marthasville. The idea of establishing an Episcopal parish in far-off Clarkesville came from the Rev. Edward Neufville, rector of Savannah’s Christ Church, who suggested that the addition of a sixth parish would allow Georgia to elect its own bishop.
According to the church history, an acre lot for the present church building was purchased in 1839, and construction of the building began that year. Subscriptions were called for, and $1,335 was raised to fund the construction. Unfortunately, construction was slowed by lawsuits and drought. Records show that the rivers were so low that year that the water-powered saw mill on the Soque River could not function. The original Grace Church building – the frame structure that survives essentially unaltered today – is a superb example of Greek-Revival architecture, characterized in front by tall pillars and a portico. It is the second oldest Episcopal Church building in Georgia; Christ Church in Savannah is one year older. Grace Church survives practically unchanged, which is not true of the Savannah church. The building retains its original box pews (or slips) with doors to shut out drafts and other patrons who had not paid for the privilege. The tall windows have most of their original glass, which was shipped in cylinders from Augusta or Athens; the twelve window sashes each contain 48 panes. The upstairs gallery, where the choir sits today, originally had benches for the slaves who had traveled with their masters as house servants.
One of the church’s main treasures is the pipe organ in the gallery, built for the church by Henry Erben of New York City in 1848. Erben is considered the outstanding organ builder of the period, despite his irascible personality—he once pushed the organist at New York City’s Trinity Church down the front steps of that church when they didn’t see eye to eye over the organ Erben was building. It is the oldest working pipe organ in Georgia, and it retains its baroque tone and nineteenth-century pitch. It arrived un-assembled, with directions for erection. It turned out to be one foot too tall, so a pit was created for the organ in the middle of the gallery. The organ was completely restored in 1988, and is still played every Sunday. The church’s high pulpit is typical of the period when southern Episcopal Churches stressed the spoken message over the Eucharist and liturgy. Eucharist was usually celebrated no more than once a month.
The church was built under the supervision of Jarvis Van Buren, a railroad man who had come to Clarkesville from New York to run an iron works company. He was hired to build the church for the handsome sum of $1,335 and the church was consecrated in 1842. Mr. Van Buren was a cousin of President Martin Van Buren. He also was an intellectual with a keen eye, engineering experience and urban point of view that came with his background and ‘Yankee’ experience. This sanctuary was originally built to be a church home predominantly for the ‘summer folk’. From the beginning, Grace Episcopal was blessed with the support of that unusually wealthy and sophisticated congregation. Its construction quality, materials and design fit and finish reflect that blessing. The wood was sawed from the large stands of mature old pine available in the area. As you can see above, the floors, pews, window trim and columns are made of wide, heart pine. We should note that the elegant box-pews also reflect the social stature and prosperity of each of the families that paid to occupy/own one.
Some of the most striking interior features of the church are the beautiful, straight back box-pews and the 56 over 56 hand blown windows. Both features are a clear reflection of the design expertise and craftsmanship of Jarvis Van Buren. The size and predominance (very few simple pews/benches available for the use of the less well off) of the expensive box-pews reflects the status of the sponsoring members as well as the social customs and mores of early to mid-19th century Episcopal congregations in Georgia.
What a remarkable interior. The slave gallery is designed in front of the huge windows, thus allowing much light into the sanctuary and preserving the exterior architectural symmetry. Note the interior columns and the drop down ceiling in support of the organ that was shipped from New York and found to be one foot too tall. Clearly, this lovely and airy sanctuary is several steps above most other early, rural Georgia churches. Regarding the gallery modification to accommodate the large organ. Van Buren and his builders must have had lots of experience in construction/architecture to have been able to design and build such a light, elegant feature while still keeping the sight lines open and uncluttered, accommodating the long span of the gallery, the additional weight of the organ and any congregants gathered there!
The black walnut pipe organ was built for the church by Henry Erben of New York City in 1848. It is one of the church’s greatest treasures and reputed to be the oldest working pipe organ in Georgia. The organ underwent a complete restoration in 1988 and can still be heard at every service. Why not visit Grace and add your voice to the hymns sung. Regular Sunday services are held with Sunday School at 9:45 AM and Holy Eucharist at 11:00 AM. “Make a joyful noise unto the Lord.”
The fluted columns, the gated pews, and the high podium are further reflections of the remarkable design and craftsmanship of this sanctuary. What is also remarkable is that this church still stands as designed and built over 175 years ago. As has been the case with many such churches like Grace, there have been some very hard, downright perilous times. When you look at the photo above as well as the other photographs herein, it is hard to imagine that in 1972, the building was declared unsafe. The building was condemned, with warning signs and yellow ‘crime tape’ wrapping the building forbidding entrance. It was determined that the structure was six inches out of plumb and that water and termites were destroying the structural supports of the (then)130 year old building. But, it could still be restored at great cost. After much discussion, the parish decided to restore, at great expense, this sacred and revered historic structure. Once again, the will of the people most involved triumphed over adversity, and the lovely old church remains available for all to enjoy for decades to come. We should be grateful for the gift this congregation has preserved for posterity.
A remarkable view from the gallery that is unchanged for one and three-quarter centuries. The view becomes even more remarkable when seen in the light of the previous revelation of just how close we came to never having been able to take or see this picture. We hope that by exposing success stories like Grace that we can further the mission of seeing that these treasures stay with us and for generations to come.
This church has been serving the community of Clarkesville since 1842 and is a masterpiece of preservation. Thank you for your loving care and stewardship. What a good role model for us all.
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