Saturday, April 05, 2008

Resurrection of Franklin Baptist Church

I’ve gotten tangled up again in Church-o-mania --- not theology (too destructive) --- but appreciation for the structures our forbears built to speak about their hopes and convictions --- expressing faith architecturally. Sometimes to the greater glory of God and sometimes to the greater glory of themselves.

Iowa is blessed with many survivals, some grand and others not --- and they can restore faith in the power of harmonious design.

I blame some of this new church tangle on Simon Knott, whose “Churches of East Anglia” Web site (also linked under “Anglophilia” at left), offers a chance to visit with him every Anglican and Roman Catholic church in England's Suffolk and Norfolk, depending upon which option you choose. I’ve spent way too many hours doing that.

Fair warning, though, Simon is Roman Catholic --- and therefore sometimes cranky about the Anglicans who, courtesy of Henry XIII, wrested every Roman church in England from the old faith and rebranded them Church of England. He is more justifiably incensed at later English protestants who set out to excise all traces of the old faith, shattering virtually every medieval bit of glass in the country , defacing the saints, dewinging the angels --- and in general behaving very badly.

In Iowa, rural churches especially are endangered as population declines, expenses mount and vandalism increases. Only five are left in Lucas County --- Center Community, Norwood United Methodist, Goshen Baptist, Pleasant Prairie United Methodist (a newer building that replaced an older one) and Bethel United Methodist, which I believe is no longer used although that’s a fairly recent development. None is grand although each reflects the resources and worship practices of the congregation that built it. They come by their simplicity honestly.

But the most common fate of small rural church buildings has been this: Congregation disbands, but cannot bear to tear its building down; the church deteriorates and is vandalized; the building finally is burned or bulldozed when it becomes a hazard.

There are exceptions, however; and I happened upon one of those a couple of years ago in southwest Appanoose County, southeast of Seymour, while looking for the grave of a young man named Albert B. Crouch, who had been killed in Vietnam on the 18th of May 1970, 19 days after he had arrived there.

That took me to Livingson, the ghost town where he is buried; and to the beautifully restored Franklin Baptist Church. This simple church was built in 1881 within the old village of Livingson atop a hill looking down on the cemetery. Extensively remodeled in 1960, it had lost among other things its bell tower and original siding --- and as the years passed it became increasingly endangered.

What happened next is remarkable.

The Historic Livingston Foundation was organized in 2003 by members of the Livingston Cemetery Association, Franklin Township trustees and others to conserve the history of the village and restore the church. They replaced the building’s foundation, installed cedar siding and cedar shingles and built and installed a new bell tower and bell. Now, restoration of the interior is in progress and the goal is to create a living, breathing building that once again can serve its community.

The foundation, which has an excellent Web site here, also hopes to move a one-room schoolhouse to the site and restore it and to construct a museum. Wow!

So thanks to the Historic Livingston Foundation, Franklin Baptist Church still is with us --- standing in for hundreds of other rural churches that have fallen, reminding us of what was and what still is possible.

To reach Livingston from Corydon, drive east on Highway 2 through Promise City to the Seymour turnoff a mile east. From Seymour, drive four miles east on (paved) County Road J46, then turn south onto 135th Avenue (gravel) and drive four more miles.

For more about Albert B. Crouch, who brought me to Livingston in the first place, read on.

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