Fairview Presbyterian Church in Lawrenceville celebrates its 190th anniversary this weekend. (Staff Photos: Camie Young)
Fairview Presbyterian Church celebrates its 190th birthday
Church member Mark Phillips talks about Fairview Presbyterian as the congregation will celebrate the church's 190th birthday on August 11th.
LAWRENCEVILLE — The country was at war with itself.
The pastor had been run out of town for taking the wrong side.
But the church bells would continue to ring at Fairview Presbyterian Church, even with just one faithful parishioner inside.
The Civil War-era story of an unnamed woman, who would recite Scripture and sing hymns by herself to ensure that the church doors remained open even in the most trying of times, is a prophetic story for one of Gwinnett County’s oldest churches, which has survived nearly two centuries.
The white meeting house on a hill in Lawrenceville has been a beacon of hope for the community for 190 years, even though the landscape has vastly changed.
“I know we’ve gone through ups and downs,” said Louise Phillips, a member for 50 years. “That’s just how it stands.”
Phillips and her family will be among the modest congregation this weekend, as the church celebrates Homecoming, singing the hymns that have been sung by generations of Gwinnettians, serving one of thousands of potlucks that have blessed the community.
The anniversary is special to Rob Sparks, whose own history with the church dates back just to 2005. But as a history buff, he began researching the church’s history not long after he learned that a minister from the 1940s was an alumnus of his alma mater.
“They were pioneers,” Sparks said of the church, which held its first worship service on Aug. 10, 1823, after being officially organized the day before.
Pastor Remembrance Chamberlain helped set up the first church in the Atlanta Presbytery before playing a role in other historic area congregations.
“This little church was in that lynchpin of history,” Sparks said. “I’m very cognizant of that as a student of history.”
In its heyday just before the War Between the States broke out, Fairview was once the center of Lawrenceville society, where about 250 sang praises, worshipped and gave thanks.
“It was seen as the community’s church; a lot of weddings and funerals took place here,” Sparks said. “Fairview has had ties to the earliest settlers. Some of the names in the cemetery are on the (city) streets.”
Since then, the congregation has waxed and waned, from the lone woman worshipping in the early 1860s to the times of the “yoked pastorate” with Lawrenceville Presbyterian Church.
The faithful have kept the meeting house in good condition, with a renovation in 1907 bringing in the stained glass and the heart pine floors, which were restored again a few decades ago.
Later, the porch was enclosed, a tower was removed and a steeple added. In 1995, that steeple had to be re-erected after it toppled during Hurricane Opal.
Ancillary buildings have been constructed over the years.
Instead of the old stream, where church-goers once watered their horses before going home, the church is now neighbors to a movie theater and one of the most bustling shopping centers in the city.
But the rose garden that has been cultivated for decades still blooms, and the cemetery’s gravestones are kept in repair, as much as possible after a century or so.
Mark Phillips remembers the looks he would get from his father when he would roll pennies on those heart pine floors to pass the time as a child.
Sitting in old theater seats that have since been removed in favor of pews, sweating before air conditioning was put in, Phillips said he learned about being a good Christian and a good person watching his parents’ example as well as the men and women all around who treated him like family.
“I really loved the dynamic of this small church,” he said, talking about his 1984 wedding in the church and later the baptisms of his children. “We were like one big family. … That’s what Fairview meant to me.”
Sparks says that spirit still exists.
During one man’s recent battle with cancer, the congregation arranged a schedule so his wife was never alone during the eight weeks he spent in the hospital and then hospice.
And despite the small resources, the 139 current members come together each year for a fundraiser that raises $10,000 to help homeless ministries.
With a music program now set up at the Duluth Highway facility and hoping to add other offerings for kids, Sparks said the future of the church is in outreach to another generation.
But for that church on the hill with so much history in its foundation, the story of its place in Lawrenceville’s present comes from another anonymous woman.
A decade or two ago, a woman used to look toward Fairview from her window at the Gwinnett Medical Center.
From her hospital bed, she could see the cross on the church’s steeple on that hill, and it gave her comfort. But at night, in her loneliest times, she couldn’t see it in the dark.
In her will, the woman left the church money to light the symbol of hope for the city; it has remained illuminated ever since.
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