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Saluda landmark to be torn down

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Centenary Methodist Church as viewed from the new courthouse in Saluda. The brick building beside the wooden church is the office of the Rappahannock District Methodist Superintendent. (Photo by Larry Chowning)

Centenary Methodist Church has served community since 1884

by Larry S. Chowning

Of the six Methodist churches formed in the 1800s in Middlesex County, only four will be standing after August.

The Centenary United Methodist Church building across from the courthouse in Saluda is scheduled to be razed next month.

Methodism was a major player in Virginia’s Great Religion Awakening that brought a more “down to earth” religion to Middlesex County and the area, according to historians. The Methodist style of camp meetings, a type of outside revival with lively music and loud sermons, appealed to many.

The Baptist faith had arrived in Middlesex around 1776 and had a solid foundation when the first Methodist camp meetings took place here in the late 1820s. The Warner area was called “The Forest” and one of the first Methodist meeting places was to become Forest Chapel, which became the mother church of all Methodist churches in the county.

“We did not rush to the decision to tear down the building. We were forced to this decision after all of the alternatives disappeared.”
—Rev. Joseph Carson, District Superintendent

In 1881, Rev. D.G.C. Butts was assigned to serve the Methodist Circuit in the Upper Middlesex and Lower King and Queen area. The Methodist parsonage was located in the village of Saluda on the corner of what is today New Street and General Puller Highway—only a short distance from where Centenary would be built. Within three years, Rev. Butts’ wife began a Sunday school class in the parsonage.

From this Sunday school, Centenary Church grew. On August 1, 1884, under the leadership of Captain Mark Hewitt, chairperson of the church building committee, and others, the church building became a reality. The name Centenary was given to acknowledge the centennial celebration of Methodism having been inaugurated in America at the Baltimore Conference on December 24, 1784.

For many years, Centenary was a part of the Middlesex Charge which included Centenary and Forest Chapel in Middlesex, and Old Church in King and Queen County. The church was the youngest of the six Methodist churches that were started in Middlesex in the 19th century.

Centenary’s membership began dropping in the 1990s and the small congregation found it difficult to support itself. The church closed in 2006. The church building was no longer used but a modern brick addition to the church, which was built in 1964, continues to be utilized as the district superintendent’s office.

Centenary was the second Methodist church to close in Middlesex in about 20 years. Bethel United Methodist Church in Jamaica was founded in 1865 and closed in the 1980s.

The Centenary Church building came under scrutiny when Middlesex County building official David Selph was asked by church officials to go through and do a structural inspection of the building.

“I noticed that the wall next to Bowden Street had a major bow, which I suspected was caused from structural failure in the roof,” said Selph.

An engineer was hired to inspect the building and found that some of the old timber peg joists had broken, Selph said.

A news release from the district office states that in November 2008, the county building official notified church trustees that repairs had to be completed within three months or the structure would be condemned as a hazard to public safety. Church officials were told that high winds could blow the steeple into the street or on top of the district office.

The cost to fix the church’s structural flaws would be considerable.

Another complication is that there are no restrooms in the original church building, and the land around the church will not sustain a septic system. 

There are restrooms in the 1964 addition and Methodists plan to continue to use that building as the office of the district superintendent.

“The decision to demolish this 123-year-old building is a painful one that we were forced to make after exhausting all of our other options,” said Rev. Joseph Carson, Rappahannock District Superintendent. 

“We know that many people have fond memories of serving and worshiping God in this building,” he said. “Although our brains tell us that this is just a pile of bricks and mortar, our hearts recognize that this was once holy ground for many families. We did not rush to the decision to tear down the building. We were forced to this decision after all of the alternatives disappeared.”
Trustee Foster Lee said, “In the past year the trustees received earnest inquiries and have spoken at length with two potential buyers. In each case, negotiations were derailed by two major problems: insufficient sewage capacity on the property and structural problems with the building.”

“It’s a shame,” said Selph, “I don’t think anyone wants to see Centenary go, but there are major problems with the building.”

There are plans to construct a monument on the grounds to recognize the importance and historical significance of Centenary United Methodist Church.

posted 07.29.2009

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