News - Article

Episcopal Diocese of Washington
News - Article

Moving stones Christ Church, La Plata, reenacts its history to honor 100th anniversary

By Meg Bryant

In a scene more typical of the early 20th century than today, a team of oxen pulled a simple ox cart along a narrow country road. A tall, lanky youth with long, blond hair, a burgundy plaid shirt and gray trousers walked alongside, gently urging them forward.

Behind the lad strolled an entourage of about 50 men, women and children, laughing, chatting and remembering the life of a church.

Under blue skies dappled with oyster gray clouds and a warm spring sun tempered by gentle breezes, members of Christ Church, Port Tobacco Parish, celebrated the 100th anniversary of the church’s relocation to La Plata.

“We’re witnessing a milestone,” said Gloria Groeger, who has been coming to Christ Church for more than 20 years. A native of England, she said the parish’s early history especially interests her.

Established in 1683 in Port Tobacco, Christ Church sat next to the Charles County Courthouse until that structure burned in 1895, and the new courthouse was erected near a recently completed railroad station named for La Plata Farm. Over the years, the original log meeting house gave way to a brick building, and eventually, in 1884, to a new Gothic-style church built of ocher-colored Aquia sandstone from Stafford County, Va. With the courthouse gone and the river silting up, Port Tobacco’s days as a center of commerce were past and the village was turning into a ghost town.

In May 1900, three women of the parish submitted a proposal to the vestry to dismantle the church and move it three miles up the road to La Plata. Once approved, the stones were removed and numbered and hauled by oxcart uphill to La Plata, along with the roof timbers, trusses and supports, ceiling and iron columns, tin roofing, doors and windows, where the church would be reconstructed next to the courthouse. The flooring and rear porch of the church were deemed “unfit” for use and replaced.

“It’s an extraordinary story,” said Christ Church’s rector, the Rev. Joseph Trigg, adding that the move demonstrated a willingness to change with the times so that the church could continue its mission. “What’s daunting is not the distance, but how many stones there are,” he said, noting that the walls are “several feet thick.”

Unfortunately, a mere year after reopening its doors on Easter Sunday, 1905, fire badly damaged the church, necessitating more renovations. A belltower was added in 1914, completing the church’s present-day outer façade.

The weekend’s festivities got under way Friday night, May 14, with a concert in the chapel.

usicians David and Ginger Hildebrand blended intricate harmonies with stories and discussion to present tunes and songs of early Maryland. Their repertoire included pieces for harpsichord, lute, violin, dulcimer, baroque guitar and English guitar. A reception followed the program.

To reenact the moving of the stones, congregants and former church members joined the Rev. Trigg at the old site on a grassy expanse in Port Tobacco, then moved out onto Chapel Point Road behind the oxen and ox cart, which carried a bale of hay symbolizing the massive stones. The route took the group past the tiny white one-room schoolhouse where Port Tobacco’s children once learned to read and write, and out onto Port Tobacco Road (Md. Route 6) where tidy farms dot the landscape and horses cantered up to the fenceline to eye the strange procession.

While most of the walkers had ties to Christ Church, a few simply saw the event as an opportunity for a pleasant Saturday morning hike or the chance to take part in a bit of local history. All marveled at the congregation’s feat of a hundred years ago and applauded the parish’s resilience through controversies, fires and two tornadoes.

“This has been a superlative event,” said Christ Church parishioner Charles Stuart, of Port Tobacco. “To think that we recreated what our forefathers and their forefathers did a hundred years ago.” He called the 1904 move a “significant undertaking” for a small country church, noting that the stones had to be hauled over dirt roads and that “nobody had any money in those days.” It cost $950 to move the stones, and another $3,500 to reassemble the building in La Plata.

Chris Estep, making the walk with daughter, Emily, and son, Garrett, said the year-long effort that culminated in the weekend’s events had strengthened ties in the church. “We’ve been through a lot of controversy and tornadoes and everything else, and this has brought a lot of people together,” he said.

Also walking were 23 members of Boy Scout Troop 1321, which meets at Christ Church and had camped the previous night at nearby Tillman Lake. Eleven-year-old Dave Gerrie, shouldering a back pack and bed roll, described the reenactment as “pretty neat.” Stepping along behind the blue and yellow ox cart, he nodded admiringly toward Pole and Cat, the 2-year-old Dutch-belted oxen. “They have big horns,” he said, “and one of them almost ran over me back where the church used to be.”

Half a mile from the church, the procession paused while the ox team was replaced with a second, larger pair. As oxen and walkers crested the hill of Route 6, where Christ Church presently sits, the bell in the bell tower rang out repeatedly to mark the end of the symbolic journey. The remainder of the morning and early afternoon were filled with a bevy of activities, including ox cart rides for the young and young-at-heart, a pipe organ demonstration, a display of 15 “in progress” needlework cushions and kneelers for the chancel, church tours, a picnic lunch, and a commemorative service, which included hymns sung when the church reopened its doors in La Plata in 1905.

“I believe the story of moving the stones echoes with us personally because it is an image of acting the faith, of being active, not passive,” the Rev. Trigg told the congregation during the brief service. “Moving the stones stands for each of us taking life into our own hands…and mak[ing] the future we’re called to something real in our own lives.”

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