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Prodigal returns home

By Christine Weerts

Special to the Times-Journal

Welcoming its prodigal back home, Old Cahawba Archaeological Park recently celebrated the joyful return of the historic St. Luke’s Episcopal Church after a 130-year absence. The reconstruction of the Gothic gem that spent more time away from Cahawba than in it, is nearly complete.

Sitting in a pine grove across from the visitor’s center, the church has been painstakingly restored — including the use of square nails — to retain its historical integrity.

Wood planks stretch vertically, as if reaching to the heavens, giving the exterior its unique appearance. Inside, soft light tumbles through the arched lancet windows that wrap around the building.

“There is truly a sense of sacred holiness here,” said Linda Derry, site director, carefully walking through the unfinished sanctuary under its towering 36-foot ceilings. Six main trusses cross the nave in triumphant arches, and the overall layout is cross-shaped. wood church, which sits on a brick foundation designed to look like the original.

Even missing some of historic details, the church is a tribute to the congregation that built it in 1854 and the friends today that brought it home.

“It couldn’t have happened without the hard work and tenacity of the Cahawba Advisory Committee, Auburn Rural Studio and the Alabama Historical Commission,” Derry said.

St. Luke’s was heralded in 1854 as “without a rival in Alabama in point of grace and fair proportions,” by the Dallas Gazette, Cahawba’s newspaper. It was based on a Richard Upjohn design — the same architect who designed St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Selma — and described in detail, even including the “full rich tones” of the Paris imported organ-like Harmonion.

Like the prodigal son in the Bible, however, St. Luke’s left Cahawba in 1880 for greener pastures in Martin’s Station, about 15 miles away. Cahawba was being abandoned because of recurring floods and economic hardships. The congregation continued to worship in the church in its new location until 1900.

Shortly afterwards, a local congregation of African Americans, formed as Azion Baptist Church, began using the building, which was deeded to them by the Diocese in the 1980s.

Age, weather and time took its toll on the antebellum building. Gone were the stained glass windows, the pews and the altar. Hand-plastered walls were crumbling and aged wood doorways rotting, which were problems beyond the means of a small rural congregation.

Efforts to save or relocate the church started in the 1930s, the same time it was photographed by the Historic American Building Survey for the Library of Congress. In the last ten years the building was purchased, a new church was built for the Azion congregation, private and public funds were sought and finally, Auburn architecture students were brought in to undertake the painstaking task of dismantling the church piece by numbered piece and re-assembling it at Cahawba under the supervision of the state’s Historical Commission and restoration carpenters, including Caeser Jones.

Today, St. Luke’s stands as a testament that love — and hard work — is the perfect combination for bringing a prodigal back home again. Visitors can view the work in progress and learn about the restoration from noon to five daily.