WENDELL — The little white church is still a landmark for motorists passing through the area.
But as they pass by, most travelers have no idea just how much history is contained inside the Historical Hephzibah Church.
Since members of Hephzibah Baptist decided in 1969 to build a new sanctuary on the other side of U.S. 64, now Wendell Boulevard, the original church building has been through its own little swirl of history.
Originally, plans called for tearing down the old building, but Wendell mayor Marsh Knott wouldn’t have it.
“He’s got people planted out here,” Charles Wood, one of the people who now oversees the maintenance of the old church, said of the cemetery that stands beside the building.
Knott bought the building from the church and had plans to move it a mile down the road. But he abandoned those plans and reached an agreement with a church committee that agreed to fix up the old church and maintain it.
The church that stands on the site now faces N.C. 97. The building motorists see is only a portion of the church that once existed. Gone is the steeple and the front part of the church that held classrooms, the sanctuary and the baptistery.
Though it’s renovated to serve as a sanctuary now, the building long served as classroom space.
“We had these partitions that you could move, but you could hear what was being said, so we would sometimes come in and listen to the people teaching to see who we thought was teaching the best and we’d go into that class,” he remembered.
Remembering is a part of the facility’s function these days. A new wood floor and enough pews to seat 125 people fill the building. But the back corner of the sanctuary is reserved for history. The walls are dotted with photos and images of former pastors. Wood says the church has collected images of every pastor except the first one. A glass-top display case shows off images of the church from its golden age. Other pictures highlight important people in the church’s history. One document, found under the floor by workers during the renovation of the building, certifies a Sunday School department from 1927.
“Why someone put it there, I have no idea,” Wood said.
The church was, for many years, the center of community life. A large bell, now on display in front of the church, hung in the steeple and warned neighbors when someone needed help. Wood says the bell worked. “You could hear that thing from a long, long way away and you knew if that thing rang for more than five minutes, there was a problem and someone needed something.”
The church is opened occasionally during the year. About half a dozen weddings and funerals still take place there each year and Wood is always willing to open the building to a visitor. Hephzibah still hosts its Easter morning sunrise service there.
Times have changed, Wood said. The church now has about 500 or 600 members. The little white church would no longer do. But it’s good, he said, to remember.
“People don’t always have an appreciation for the past until they get older, Wood said. “We want to make sure that history is there for them.”