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FREDERICKSBURG, Va. (AP) — From worshipping once a month in a brush arbor structure to worshipping weekly in the brick building of a church with 16 ministries, the members of St. James Baptist Church in Milford have come a long way in 150 years.

“Generations before us have sacrificed and made this possible for us,” said Linda Gray, a lifelong church member and chair of the trustee’s ministry. “The next generation needs to see that it didn’t just happen, we’ve come a long way.”

St. James celebrates its 150th anniversary this year.

“You know, some things just don’t hit you,” said Harvey Latney, the former commonwealth’s attorney for Caroline County and a lifelong member of St. James. “I didn’t realize until last year that we were coming up on 150 years and I thought, you’re kidding me.”

The church was set to mark the occasion with a banquet at River Club Baptist Church in Fredericksburg on Saturday and a special anniversary service on Sunday — with the unveiling of a “family and friends tree” on the wall at the back of the sanctuary.

Each of the 205 leaves on the tree was purchased by a member in honor of a current member or in memory of one who has passed away. Gray said she hopes it will be an inspiration to younger members and those yet to come.

“The ones that will have to carry this church forward can look at it to see where we’ve come from,” she said.

According to a history of the church compiled by Gray, St. James was founded in 1867 by a group of black Milford residents who split from Providence Baptist Church, where white and black members had worshiped together. The group first held Sunday services in a brush arbor — an open-sided shelter with a roof of brush, cut branches or hay — named Mt. Barron, located on the main road between Bowling Green and the community of Sparta.

This first structure burned down, as did a subsequent log cabin named Mt. Evans. In 1880, the congregants of Mt. Evans purchased an acre of land on State Route 721, Sparta Road, for $20 and built a wooden frame church. Rev. A.L. Goodloe, the pastor at the time, suggested changing the name to St. James.

In 1913, under the tenure of Rev. Chester A. Lindsey, a vestibule and a bell tower were added to the church building and services were expanded from once a month to twice a month.

Lindsey, who was the first black teacher at Armstrong High School in Richmond, valued education and encouraged St. James congregants to build their own school to educate members of the Milford community. St. James School was built up the road from the church in the 1920s. It no longer stands, but Gray and Latney both remember going to elementary school there in the 1950s.

“It was a two-room school with a potbelly stove in each room,” Latney remembered. “We would have to cut kindling to start the fire.”

Latney remembers walking two-and-a-half miles to church for services twice a month and Sunday school every week. He would walk with his brother and his grandmother through the woods, across a swamp and down the highway to St. James. His grandmother would carry a stick with her.

“She’d leave it behind the church and we would pick it up on the way home in case we had to kill a snake on the way,” he said.

Latney also has vivid memories of people carrying lanterns to light their way home after nighttime revival services.

“I can still visualize people walking down the road and swinging their lanterns,” he said. “It was quite a sight.”

There was no air conditioning in the old church building and during services on steamy summer mornings, Latney said he would try to sit near a window so he could stick his arm out, “as if I was riding in a car,” he said.

“Something I also remember is how we dressed back then,” he said. “The men wore suits and you didn’t take your coat off in church. When you took the jacket off was when you were outside and when you went back in church the jacket went back on.”

St. James continued to expand and in 1971, members wanted to add an education wing. However, the wooden frame church was so old by that point that it would not accommodate further remodeling. The church secured a loan to build a new brick structure on a lot it owned across the street from the original church. Through a massive fundraising campaign, they were able to pay off the loan in eight years. Construction on the new building began in 1979 and was completed in 1980.

In 2000, the old building was demolished — all but the steeple, which sits in an empty field near the cemetery. Artifacts from the old building, including the cornerstone and several Bibles from the late-1800s, are housed in the fellowship hall in the new building.

Latney and Gray said St. James has always been a warm, welcoming and family-friendly church.

“The commitment, dedication and love for the church and love for each other is what’s kept us going for 150 years,” Latney said.

The theme of the 150th anniversary is “journey toward expectation.”

“Generations before brought the church across the road to the new church,” Gray said. “We have to pick up where they left off and make sure the church still stands.”


Information from: The Free Lance-Star,