In historic Whitehaven, a new calling for an old church

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Charlotte Lilly, left, a former trustee of the Whitehaven United Methodist Church, and Paula Erdie, president of the Whitehaven Heritage Association, stand at the doors of the church built in 1892. The church has been donated by the Peninsula Delaware United Methodist Church Conference to the association. (Brice Stump Photo)

There are no more saloons or ballrooms in Whitehaven. Gone, too, are the shops, tomato factory, shipbuilding yard, the wharf.

From the past, the school remains, quiet these days, and also the famed Whitehaven Hotel, steeped in antiques, ambiance, peace and village charm.

Just along a narrow street old maples shade the old Whitehaven Methodist Church built in 1892, once the very heart of this neighborhood along the Wicomico River.

Always the only church in the community, it has been loved and cared for by the smallest of congregations. Even during World War II, the church that could hold a few hundred worshipers only had 17 to sit on oak benches as snow dusted the modest stained glass windows and shingles of the steeple.

Then, in 1975, the bell that called the community to worship was quiet.

Services would only be held four times a year and the wooden church, built in 1892, would open only for special events, such as weddings and funerals.

The church in White Haven, as the village was called by the 1960s, had outlasted almost every member of the congregation.

Then, in 2015, plans were made by the Peninsula Delaware United Methodist Church Conference to explore options for a new chapter in the history of the building.

The Rev. Julie Lewis was instrumental in developing interest with the Whitehaven Heritage Association. Lewis officiates at Rockawalkin United Methodist Church and has served Whitehaven and First United Methodist Church in Quantico for the past two years. “Whitehaven Church was on the Hebron-Rockawalkin Charge,” she said.

Would the association be interested in having the church donated to them?

Paula Erdie, president of the association and Charlotte Lilly, a trustee for the church for the past 10 years, said they were delighted with the conference’s interest in giving them them the property.

The association, with 100-plus members, also owns the former Whitehaven School used for community, and education and cultural events.

“It was my understanding that if we didn’t accept the offer to take it,” Erdie said, “that it would be up for sale. For us, it’s like buying a house. We hesitated and thought it through.There’s always something that needs replacing.

“Obviously we are going to have to take on fundraising to keep the church up. As a new owner there comes the responsibility of caring for it, routine maintenance and insurance.”

The Rev. Julie Lewis

The Rev. Julie Lewis

“Because we have the school here, and the church and hotel, it enhances the opportunities to bring tours here, too,” Lilly said. “Whitehaven is a special village. How many places have a church, hotel and school a century or more old? There aren’t many places like Whitehaven around anymore.”

The Whitehaven Historic District was added to the national Register of Historic Places in 1980. The village dates to the late 1600s.

Because of the group’s appreciation for local history, members felt obligated to consider acquiring the church.

“They built ships in Whitehaven and they say that the interior of this church reflects shipwright layout and design,” Lilly said, pointing to the herring-bone design created with pine boards, their varnish dark with age.

“It’s such a beautiful, quaint church. And so much beautiful woodwork inside,” Erdie said. “Maybe groups would want to host events here or other congregations might need the use of the building. It would be ideal for musical programs or workshops.”

Just a few weeks ago, the conference conveyed ownership of the church to the association. “The Whitehaven Heritage Association agreed to accept the building, Lewis said.

“Over the years the association and the church group have worked together to hand repairs as they came up,” Lilly said. “Now we will be on our own. This church has always been so important to life in Whitehaven. We want to save it.”

For decades, the church has been in desperate need of funds. In 1948, a history of the church noted that member “Miss Vida” Covington  “… went door to door for contributions and sold cakes and hard candy for the cause.”

In 1909, for reasons now unknown, the church was moved about 100 feet down Church Street to the present site, which is closer to the Wicomico River.

Now, it has moved again, in another sense, from history into the future.

Folks are excited about the potential role the church has for the village.

“This was an unusual situation for me, to be pastor of a church with no members,” Lewis reflected. “I prayed about that. What are we doing as a church to make disciples for Christ? Then I understood that is not the role of this church in this phase of its history.

“The time has come now to lift up that which has gone on before here and to celebrate its history, and who is better to maintain that than the Whitehaven Heritage Association?” Lewis asked.

“The association is tasked with keeping alive the history of the community, to remind us what has gone on here in the past and what is it that brings us to this place today.

“We are not divesting ourselves of property but putting it in the hands of people who know how to use the church building in a unique way,” she said. “We are not walking away. We are here if they need us for special services.”

Lewis, who has conducted special services in the church for Christmas and a homecoming program in April, said the building has a unique “feel,” as well as character and charm.

“It has a very special character. This unique interior woodwork gives the church architectural significance. It stands as an unusual expression of the community’s maritime and boat building history.

“It’s simply beautiful and represents the history of this village so well,” Lewis said.

In its own special way the church still influences the spiritual needs of individuals who find peace in its interior and comfort in its history to the community.

Donations to help maintain the church would be welcomed, Erdie said, and can be sent to The Whitehaven Heritage Association, 2740 Church St., Whitehaven, MD 21856.

Contact Brice Stump at shorehistory@gmail.com.

The woodwork of the interior of the Whitehaven United Methodist Church is said to refelct the skills and design work of shipwrights working in the village in 1892. (Brice Stump Photo)

The woodwork of the interior of the Whitehaven United Methodist Church is said to refelct the skills and design work of shipwrights working in the village in 1892. (Brice Stump Photo)

 

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