St. Bartholomew Episcopal is a visual feast of Victorian architectural elements both inside and out. It is also one of the most historically significant African American churches in Georgia with roots of the church dating back to the 1830’s. At that time, there were approximately 1,000 slaves working in the rice fields on several large plantations nearby. According to the National Register history, “In 1832, Episcopal religious education for slaves in this area was initiated by a white family on their plantation. In 1845, the Ogeechee Mission was formally established when, in an effort to reach out to the slaves, the Episcopal bishop appointed the first permanent pastor to the area. This priest, Rev. William C. Williams, was to join contiguous plantations under his ministry, live in the area and become the slaves’ pastor. Williams established a school and a chapel on each of the three plantations he then served. His success with the slaves was such that by 1860 his congregation was the largest, black or white, in the Episcopal Diocese of Georgia”.
This is a very historical congregation in that prior to the Civil War, slaves were allowed to attend their master’s church but rarely allowed to form their own. Furthermore, African American Episcopal Churches are rare in Georgia and they are located, for the most part, in the coastal region. In the early 1800’s, rice began to be replaced by cotton as the most important cash crop and as the plantations moved inland, the predominant religions that emerged in the backcountry were Baptists, Methodists and some Presbyterians. The Episcopal church was unusual in its dedication to education for the slaves. The church wanted to have the blacks understand the Episcopal liturgy and therefore felt an effort to teach them to read was desirable. Writing was another matter as it was viewed to be a more dangerous skill, and was even outlawed at one point in Colonial Georgia
St. Bartholomew, located in the village of Burroughs, is the oldest continuing black congregation in the Episcopal Diocese of Georgia. Following the Civil War, Burroughs was established as a settlement of former slaves who, in the 1870’s and 1880’s, were given the opportunity to buy the land they were living on from their former owners. An 1881 gift of $400 to the Mission Congregation from St. Bartholomew’s Church in New York City (hence the name) for a new schoolhouse and church – illustrating the post-Civil War Northern interest in assisting the free blacks. In 1896, the present St. Bartholomew’s Church was consecrated. The school building (parish house), which played such an important role in the church’s mission, was completed the following year. The church has served as an important religious and educational center for the community ever since.
The church had over 400 members at its peak in the early 1900’s and is still active with a few members today. We are so grateful that this special part of Georgia history is alive and well and still serving the African American community as it has for over 170 years. The church was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1982 and is the source for much of the above history.
The design and architecture exhibited at St. Bartholomew is unique for a rural, African American church and deserves another exterior photograph and comment. Above we present a view accentuating the entry doorway located in the lower portion of the "Normanesque" bell tower of this historic structure. The tower's large triangular vents are another unique design feature and allow us to see the bell. Also revealed is the fact that the Victorian, Carpenter Gothic window theme seen at the rear of the church in the previous photo is continued throughout the sanctuary. St. Bartholomew, inside and out, is an historic rural Georgia church worthy of preservation that will inform and inspire generations to come.
This is the cheerful view from the vestibule that is presented when a visitor enters through the front doorway of St. Bartholomew.
After getting a look at the exterior shot of this church, its spot-on, late Victorian architecture, square bell tower, handsome gothic windows and fanciful shingle and clapboard decorative elements, you know that the interior will be a series of visual treats as well. This close up of the entry vestibule and several of the interior, carpenter crafted window frames with decorative, tinted glass panes lives up to expectations.
In this view, we are at the rear of the church and the entry way is to our left. The relatively large size of its interior becomes apparent here. The lovely, simple pews sit on the original heart pine floorboards just as they have for decades. The sanctuary was designed to accommodate about two hundred, and we are told that it was often filled in the "good old days" when the church was at the center of a bustling community.
This view from the pulpit highlights some significant differences between St. Bartholomew and other, rural Georgia, African American churches of its era. The fact that it was/is still supported by the Episcopal Church and received its early financing from a wealthy, New York namesake congregation is reflected in the design, furnishings, fixtures and decorative elements within the sanctuary.
Moving up the aisle to the chancel and pulpit, we see another charming Victorian touch and attractive vignette. We also get a chance to better appreciate the artfully formed window frames that are found throughout St. Bartholomew. Also worth noting is the vertical, dark stained wainscot topped by a moulded rail sitting beneath the original wide horizontal wall board sheathing. Little has changed here in the past century.
Here we stand behind the pulpit at this, the oldest continuing black congregation in the Episcopal Diocese of Georgia. We see furnishings, decorative elements, gothic windows, high, bright white ceiling and fit and finish not found in most of the rural churches we feature and very seldom found in an African American church. Certainly, insuring that this sanctuary and congregation remains a vital and treasured monument to Georgia's past and future for generations to come is a worthy undertaking. We salute those that are working to insure St. Bartholomew's future is a bright one.
The five colorful carpenter gothic windows at the back of the sanctuary provide an interesting decorative element. They also bring a joyful and welcoming light into the church's interior.
This happy vestibule has welcomed St. Bartholomew congregations and visitors for decades. We hope this church will be able to continue its traditions for another hundred years.
Over 30 years ago, a photograph similar to this one appeared on the cover of “A Handbook For the Identification, Documentation and Evaluation of Historic African-American Properties in Georgia” published by Georgia DNR and written by Carol Merritt. That early effort to discover, document and publicize Georgia’s endangered historic churches and other such structures has bloomed into the movement we at HRCGA embrace. Saint Bartholomew remains today because its congregation and Episcopal hierarchy decided it was well worth sustaining. We encourage such efforts and salute others willing to support the cause.
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