Hymnfest 23 re-opens historic church for community sing-along

Published 1:46 pm Saturday, September 16, 2023

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By Christine Weerts

Special to the Selma Times-Journal

Cindy Owens was six years old when she first visited her great uncle’s family church, Azion Baptist in Orrville, for special Sunday programs and anniversary services.  

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She was amazed by the grand arched interior, which was lined with wooden beams, the beautiful arched windows, and the spaciousness of the old church.

“We loved to sing out and hear our voices echo in those tall arched spaces,” she said.

Today, Owens looks forward to singing under those grand arches again during Hymnfest 23, a free community hymn sing-along to be held Sept 24 at 4 p.m. at Old Cahawba. The event will be held in St. Luke’s Church, which was home to the Azion Baptist Church for many years.

“It’s going to be an awesome experience for me,” said Owens, whose childhood group, the First Baptist Harmonettes also raised the rafters at the church. “Music has always been an important part of worship for me, especially the old hymns.”

Old familiar hymns like “Amazing Grace,” “Blessed Assurance,” “How Great Thou Art,” “What a Fellowship” and more will be featured in the Hymnfest, which includes Selma singers from different church traditions who will partner to lead the songs.

Stephen Posey, a member at St. Paul Episcopal Church Selma, said he also loves the old hymns.

“Their beauty resonates with me,” Posey said. “The words are often exquisite, calling us to look beyond today to higher and holier things.”  

Posey said that he’s looking forward to his St. Paul’s choir joining the hymn fest and helping lead “old” hymns of the tradition first sung at St. Luke’s, which was built as an Episcopal Church at Cahawba in 1854.

“As someone interested in architecture and history, the Hymnfest perfectly brings back to life the building’s original use— for worship and community,” Posey said. 

After the residents of Cahawba began moving away in the late 1860s, the historic St. Luke’s church also moved – about 15 miles away to Martin’s Station. It was home to Episcopalians until the early 1900s; the church was opened for the Azion Missionary Baptist congregation from about 1931 to 2006. It returned to Old Cahawba in 2014 and is in the process of renovation.

“I am looking forward to having the walls of St. Luke’s reverberate again with the sound of hymn singing,” said Linda Derry, Park Director. “It will be a time-traveling experience.  To hear hymns that were sung within this church so long ago will be amazing. To hear hymns that were sung in other nearby churches in Cahawba and hymns sung by men held within the Civil War Prison for captured Union soldiers will be magical. 

“I’m especially thrilled about the diversity of hymn singers that will be gathering in fellowship to sing these old-fashioned hymns together.  This hymnfest ought to be a healing experience for a community still struggling to recover from the [Jan. 12] tornado disaster.” 

Derry is also excited that the Azion Baptist Church members will attend the Hymnfest, because they have a special gift for the Orrville congregation. “The staff found a bell sealed up above a false ceiling when the church returned to Cahawba. That bell, unlike the structure, did not originate in Cahawba; it belonged to an Azion Baptist Congregation that used the church,” she said.

On Sunday afternoon, during the hymnfest, the Alabama Historical Commission plans to return that bell to its congregation, through Deacon Joe Williams.

Hymnfest 23 features hymns found in Episcopal, Methodist, AME, Baptist and other hymnals. Special hymnals produced for the Hymnfest will be given to each singer.

For Warren “Billy” Young, deacon at First (Missionary) Baptist Church in Selma, Hymnfest 23 brings a community still hurting from the Jan 12 tornado disaster together to sing those heartfelt hymns that take him back to childhood, when his family was at church anytime the doors were open. 

“All the time growing up, I’d only be in three places: home, church, or school,” Young said.

Perfect attendance at school and church was expected and singing hymns was a family affair, she said. Everyone in the family sang, except for Billy’s sister Wanda Young Lowe, who plays the organ—as she has been since she was 11. She will be playing on  Sept 24 as the Missionary Baptist choir leads hymns like “Just a Little Talk with Jesus” and ‘Precious Lord, Take my Hand” on Sept 24.

“It’s a great joy and privilege to be part of Hymnfest 23,” Young said. “I encourage everyone to come out and lift their voices high in joy and fellowship. Together, we can “then sing our soul” together – in harmony and hope for a better, stronger future.”

Hymnfest 23 is free and open to the public. Refreshments will be served. The event is sponsored by Black Belt Treasures Cultural Arts Center, the Daniel Foundation, Thrivent Financial, anonymous donors, Old Cahawba, and the Alabama Historical Commission.