Jo Anne Embleton
Jacksonville Daily Progress
COVE SPRINGS —
Tucked away on a one-acre lot on Cherokee County Road 3406 is a pretty, red-bricked church that has served generations of Methodists since 1856, when it was founded as the Sand Hill Methodist Episcopal Church.
On Sunday, after nearly a year of trying to keep attendance at a solid, steady rate, the church – since renamed Cove Springs United Methodist Church – will close its doors unless the congregation's numbers immediately swell enough to support the church's operation.
“It breaks my heart,” said Rev. Fred Worthen, who has pastored at Cove Springs the past 10 months. “When I first went there, they were having a meeting to close the church, but I talked with the district superintendent to give us six months to resurrect.”
For a while, “we got up to 16 (members), but then it began dwindling again” to the present number, which is less than a handful, he said. “But that's been the history of this church for the past several years – people come for a while, then stop.”
According to a State Historical Marker erected on the site, the church – at the time of dedication – had been “in continuous operation for over 130 years”
Initially, church trustees purchased a parcel of land at Sand Hill, and the congregation met there several years, until 1879, when it moved to a 10-acre site about a mile south of the present site.
The new site, the marker states,was known as “Camp Ground” and a frame sanctuary was erected there, as was a brush arbor, “built for worship services during the hot summer months.”
The one-room church was used as a center for education, “where children in all grades received instruction from one teacher,” according to the state marker; however, by 1911, the congregation moved to its current site, a one-acre tract located on County Road 3406.
The land cost a whopping $25, and soon, another frame sanctuary was built to house the congregation. In March, 1955, that structure was replaced by the red-brick building that still stands today.
In a letter to members and former members, Worthen described how “Cove Spring United Methodists engaged in ministries to individuals, the family and to the world.
“With her sister churches, its members always took strong stands on issues such as slavery, smuggling, drug use and humane treatment of prisoners; the church always was actively involved in efforts for wold peace; sought to help people relate to God's word and were proud to be proud to be called God's people,” the letter read.
Church song leader and officer Calvin Howard, who was actively involved in his Baptist congregation back in Albuquerque, said he was looking for a spiritual home when he moved to Jacksonville more than a year ago, and saw something in the news about Cove Springs being considered for closure 10 months ago.
At Cove Springs, “I found a place in a church that's a loving, accepting church,” he said, calling it “painful” to see history repeat itself so soon.
Although there was a brief rally in attendance numbers, “we have continually gone downhill, and as a consequence, we can't justify keeping the doors open anymore,” Howard said. “I've never seen a church just die.”
Both he and his pastor attribute the decline to aging and people moving from the area.
“From what I have heard, 15 people – including the previous pastor – died … death has taken a toll on this little country church,” Howell said.
“Then, we've had about a half-dozen families move (away) to get better jobs, so the core of the church has either died or moved for employment, and we just have not been able to replace them.”
In an ironic observation, the historical marker at the church notes that “while many rural church in Texas did not survive hard economic times over the years, this congregation has remained active and continues to be an integral part of the community.”
“Cove Springs is one of those little churches I've had the privilege of serving during the last 50 years that was built in a thriving rural community, but those (eventually) begin to die out,” the pastor said. “People die, they move away to go where the jobs are, and nobody is replacing them.”
After the 11 a.m. services on Sunday Northwest District Superintendent Sandra Smith of the Texas Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church will address gathered members to determine what happens next to the Cove Springs property and assets.
Members have been invited to worship at the Mount Selman United Methodist Church, also pastored by Worthen, but Howell hopes that an eleventh hour miracle – like the one that took place nearly a year ago – will occur again.
“If we could come up with someone who says, 'We stand shoulder to shoulder with you,' it could make a difference in keepin our church open,” he said. “Without people, it's hard to run a church.”
Worthen, meanwhile, drew comfort from Scripture, citing Ecclesiastes: “'There is a time to live, a time to die'… that's kind of where we are right now.”