St. Francis Episcopal Church in Rutherfordton, NC
 

HISTORY

The history of St. Francis Church has its beginnings in the 1830"s when Bishop Levi Silliman Ives of the Diocese of Western North Carolina began sending itinerant missionaries into the "wilderness" of western North Carolina. Bishop Ives denided that Rutherfordton was a fertile ground for a church planting because it was the center of gold mining and production for the entire United States. The nearby Bechtler Mint was producing much of the gold coinage of that time.

In 1848 the tiny St. John’s Episcopal Church (which still stands about one block south of St. Francis) was built with funds provided by Joseph McDowell Carson, owner of the Green River Plantation. Thus begins our connection with the Plantation and its owners. St. John’s was consecrated by Bishop Ives in 1851.

The California Gold Rush of 1849 led to a decline of prosperity in Rutherfordton. The Bechtler Mine closed, and in the declining times the pastoral care of St. John’s was left to itinerant missionaries with no regular services. It lost its diocesan standing, but revived in the 1870’s and was readmitted to the North Carolina Diocese in 1875, although it later was dependent on itinerants again.

Among the few families still members of St. John’s was that of Col. Franklin Coxe, a native of Rutherfordton. He married Mary Matilda Mills, the granddaughter of Joseph McDowell Carson, and bought the Green River Plantation from the Carson family in 1878. They had five children living into adulthood including two daughters, Daisy and Maude, who later became devoted benefactors of St. Francis, along with their father.

In 1898, Col. Coxe began building a church for the St. John’s mission on the site of an old subscription school called The Academy. It was modeled after a country English parish of the 14th century. Col. Coxe had it built as a memorial to his mother, Jane McBee Alexander Coxe, and he was granted permission to change the name of the mission to St. Francis in honor of his father, Francis Sidney Coxe. Both of his parents are buried in the nearby Rutherfordton City Cemetery. The window behind the altar is in their memory.  

The church, believed to be designed by the firm of Hazelhurst & Huckel of Philadelphia, was built of granite from the Wallace Granite Quarry just up the creek from the present parish house. It was completed in 1899 and consecrated on Ascension Day 1900 by Bishop Junius Moore Horner of the Missionary District of Asheville. On May 21, 1900, Col. & Mrs. Coxe designated by indenture that St. Francis Episcopal Church was to become the property of the Trustees of the Missionary District of Asheville (later to become the Diocese of Western North Carolina in 1922). The agreement included restrictions that only Coxe family members could be buried in the ground around the chapel, and only the Coxe family could give memorial windows. Clergy from Marion Missions and Lincolnton served St. Francis for a time.

The old St. John’s was used as a parish hall and Sunday School for a short while, and then was used by several other denominations before it was deconsecrated in 1980. It then became the home of the Rutherford County Historical Society and is listed on the National Registry of Historical Sites.

Another stage of St. Francis’ growth occurred with the arrival of Dr. and Mrs. Henry Norris from Philadelphia in 1906. While Dr. Norris and Dr. Montgomery Biggs were establishing Rutherford County’s first hospital, Mrs. Norris arranged for the construction of St. Luke’s Chapel on the hospital grounds, and a “mission house” next door as a residence for the Rev. Fredrick D. Lobdell, an old family friend. He began a full-time ministry to both St. Francis and St. Luke’s, and thus was St. Francis’ first regular priest. He also did services for the Chapels of St. Joseph and St. Andrew at the Green River Plantation, and traveled by horseback extensively in the rugged areas of Rutherford and Polk counties. Under Fr. Lobdell’s guidance, mission houses were established and new missions and chapels were begun, including St. Gabriel’s Episcopal Church around 1913 in the New Hope community of Rutherfordton.

The sisters, Miss Maude Coxe and Daisy Coxe Wright, demonstrated their devotion to St. Francis in many ways. In 1930 Daisy purchased land next to the church and had the present rectory built, which she deeded to St. Francis. The Rev. Albert P. Mack was the first priest to live in it. The church grew under Fr. Mack’s leadership and the sisters had a 27-foot addition to St. Francis erected in 1934, doubling its size. A cornerstone was laid bearing the dates of the original fonts building in 1899 and the new addition in 1934. Also added were an office and choir room, connected to the church by a cloister. The sisters also purchased three windows crafted by Louis C. Tiffany Co. of New York City and a new pipe organ. Miss Maude had an altar made of Caspian stone in memory of her parents, and Daisy Coxe Wright purchased Eucharistic vestments, carved oak pew fronts, and an ornamental lectern and pulpit.

Miss Maude died in 1939, leaving a trust fund to the church. Her sister, Daisy, also established a trust at that time, which had grown significantly by the time of her death in 1958. She even tried to stipulate that the priest “shall be a southern man” in the trust agreement! Both sisters are buried in the Coxe cemetery behind the church, and are referred to affectionately by church members, at the sound of creaks in the church, “That must be Maude (or Daisy)!” Their endowment funds live on to this day.

Under the leadership of The Rev. Paul Chaplin (1954-58) the parish house across the street was built, and was dedicated on the Feast of St. Francis 1956. Fifteen years later an addition to the parish house was dedicated on the Feast of St. Francis 1971, when The Rev. Ronald H. Haines (1968-81) served as Rector.

In 1978 a memorial garden was built with gifts donated in memory of Mrs. Charles F. Gold, Sr. The garden is for the interment of the ashes of church members, former members, or member of their immediate families, with their names mounted on the memorial sign. The Garden offers a peaceful spot for meditation and remembrance.

For many years the church has operated a pre-school, St. Francis Day School, which had its beginnings in the 1940’s in the undercroft of the church as a kindergarten, and later moved to the Parish House.

Following a fire in March of 1998, which gutted the office and choir room, the office was moved to its present location in the Parish House. After its restoration, the old office space is used for the choir, and a meeting room. This building has taken on the name “Cloister House” in recent years.

St. Francis Church is a vibrant member of the community, and takes part in many ecumenical events with other local churches. We will always be deeply grateful to the Carson and Coxe families for their steadfast devotion and support, without which we might never have become “that rock church on the hill”.



With appreciation to Across Two Centuries, The Lost World of Green River Plantation by Robin Spencer Lattimore and No Mountain Too Steep by J. Derek Harbin.

 

Old St. John’s Church

 

 

Laying the Cornerstone, Ascension Day, 1934

 

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395 North Main Street, Rutherfordton, North Carolina 28139
Office: (828)287-3888 | Email: administrator@stfrancisrutherfordton.org
©2011 St. Francis Episcopal Church