Atlantans on a mission

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Atlantans on a mission

Angels follow them. They perch in dusty rafters, prowl battered rooftops, peer from steeples where bells tolled. The mortals below must be watched.

The mortals, Sonny Seals and George Hart, are on a mission — divine, or otherwise. They just want to find old country churches and preserve their history while the buildings are still standing.

And if, as they walk an old graveyard, they feel the brush of something celestial against their cheeks, well, they welcome all the help they can get — earthly, or otherwise.

The Atlanta residents, friends for six decades, are the creators Historic Rural Churches of Georgia, a non-profit organization committed to finding and cataloging old country churches.

Theirs is a labor of love, not money. Refurbishing old buildings takes cash — often, lots of it. Instead, they look for the churches, then hope someone can restore them.

Since setting up a web site two years ago, the duo has listed more than 100 churches across the state. At least 300 more are awaiting discovery, they think.

The churches are in coastal forests and mountain meadows, built of brick and stone and wood. They’re found in moribund town squares and on the edges of fields. Some are cloaked in hardwoods; others stand alone. A blessed few are still in use, but most are abandoned — or, at best, barely used. Each, they say, is a “noble box.”

“The villages go away,” said Seals, 72. “The churches stay.”

Each, the men believe, has a story.

“This is history,” said Hart, also 72. “We just use the churches as vehicles to tell it.”

You cannot discuss Georgia history without including churches. When settlers began moving into the state more than two centuries ago, they always built churches. The first were rough structures, usually built of logs. They made way for more elaborate structures as those long-ago Georgians prospered.

Churches were for worship, yes, but they were more than that. They were places where newcomers to a strange, large land could connect with others.

“Imagine you’re an immigrant. A year ago you were in England, or Ireland, or Scotland,” said Hart. “A year later you’re in Washington County. Of course you had to have a church. No man is an island.”

Traveling, looking

The SUV’s tires hummed. Seals accelerated out of Crawfordville, 90 miles east of Atlanta. GA. 22 curved and passed under a canopy of leaves tinged with October’s fire. It looped past Antioch Baptist Church, a rambling old wooden building with twin spires and a rickety porch. The descendants of slaves built the Taliaferro County church in the late 1800s.

The church’s door was unlocked. Seals and Hart stepped inside.

Each man lowered his voice; churches, even empty, command reverence. They examined the pulpit, its veneer cracked with age.

“I believe this is original to the church,” Hart said.

Each church in the online catalog is original, or close to it. Seals said he and Hart look for “architectural eye candy” — building details that make a structure noteworthy.

The men left a donation in a basket and returned to the SUV. They traveled south for 10 minutes before stopping at Powelton Baptist. It’s about all that left of Powelton, a Hancock County community that flourished before the Civil War.

It is a handsome structure, and still in use. It is the oldest existing Baptist church in Georgia — the Georgia Baptist Convention was founded there in 1822 — and looks as solid today as it did when settlers felled trees two centuries ago to make a place of worship.

Across the road, in a glade, was a spring, ringed by concrete — the baptismal pool. Leaves crackled as the two approached it. They startled a frog at the pool’s edge. Eep! It was gone with a splash and thrash of green legs.

Seals stared at the pool, dark-brown and still. “There’s no telling how many souls have been saved here.”

They returned to the SUV and traveled less than a mile to Powelton Methodist. It is closed, and desperately needs a coat of paint.

For Seals, this is a special place: the remains of his great-grandfather, William D. Sills, who fought for the 15th Georgia Infantry in the Civil War, are interred at the church cemetery. He came across it several years ago, “and everything clicked,” he said. For Seals, a mission to identify churches had suddenly become personal.

‘Shine a light’

They have three goals for the churches they catalog: to make the public aware of the old buildings; to educate Georgians about the churches in their midst; and, Lord and donors willing, preserve those that are left.

They have seven photographers who work for free, taking images that are on the web site. The site also includes a history of each church.

Plans also include a coffee-table volume and a televised account of their travels. Each is in the works.

“Our mission is to shine a light,” Seals said. “Who knows who may come up and do something?”

A few churches included in the online inventory are now undergoing restoration — proof, the men think, that old houses of worship stir something in peoples’s souls.

People like William deGolian. He and his wife, Elizabeth, discovered a country church not far from a farm they’d bought a 90-minute drive from their Atlanta home. They usually passed the Taliaferro County building with a quick glance. One day, deGolian stopped to read the historic marker posted near the church’s front door.

Thus began his love affair with the Church of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The building, erected in 1883, served Georgia first Catholic parish, established in the late 1700s by settlers from Maryland. The old building is called Georgia’s “Cradle of Catholicity.”

A Catholic, deGolian and other enthusiasts formed Friends of Purification Church, dedicated to preserving the old building. He also contacted Seals and Hart; the historic churches web site, he knew, would help reach more fans, and possible donors.

Adding the church to the historic inventory has created interest in the restoration job, he said.

“Sonny and George have done a terrific job,” he said. “They’ve been very supportive.”

The organization has the blessing of the Georgia Baptist Convention, too. The organization has shared information on some of its rural churches with the duo. Perhaps, said the Rev. Charles Jones, a convention historian, public interest in some of the churches will lead to their salvation.

“These buildings are icons,” Jones said. “Even though the people are not there, there is a sense that wood and mortar and nails (in each) tell a story of their own.”

It’s a story Seals and Hart are compelled to share.

Do they have divine help? Seals laughed. “My mission is not religious,” Seals said. “It’s historic.”

Maybe, but it’s hard to imagine the men are working without some guidance — from the rafters, perhaps, or the steeples, somewhere up there.

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