A Very Special Sunday at Old Trinity
Once a year, the shutters are opened, the windows are raised and the faithful fill Old Trinity-in-the-Fields Episcopal Church in rural Tipton County, Tenn. Their very special service makes up for the fact that the 128-year-old church is unused the other 51 Sundays of the year.
Once a year, the faithful return to Trinity-in-the-Fields for a very special service and a dinner on the grounds.
By James G. Andrews
For another year, as usual, the little white framed church in rural Tipton County, Tenn., had stood peacefully deserted. Amid the tall oaks and cedars and tombstones which have grown up around it for well more than a century, it had been unattended.
But now, as usual, on this one Sunday in 52 it was being attended quite noticeably, its secluded ground rapidly filling with a whole flock of folks.
Children, as usual, were running and playing among the tombstones, while their parents carried baskets of food and jugs of tea from their automobiles to awaiting picnic tables.
As usual, descendants of those buried in the churchyard visited the graves, quietly placing magnolia blossoms and tiny american and Confederate flags at the markers.
Meanwhile, as usual, in the tiny, closet-sized room at the rear of the church an Episcopalian bishop bumped elbows with a fellow Priest, as the two donned their vestments for the service.
And, as usual, snow-bearded Leon Thomas, ageless black chauffeur to Miss Mary and Miss Octavia Love of Memphis, came driving the two elderly sisters up as close to the old church as possible, in their big and fancy Imperial.
It was Trinity Sunday once again. And once more the faithful form far and near had made their annual pilgrimage to Old Trinity.
The quaint little chapel four miles from Mason on a country road off Highway 70 is one of the oldest buildings of any kind in West Tennessee. Built in 1847 by slaves to replace St. Andrew’s, which had burned in 1845, the church with its 20-by-40-foot sanctuary was named “Trinity Episcopal.”
But in 1870, it lost both its name and its membership to a lovely new gothic church which had been built in Mason, then a bustling rail center. That “new church” is still active, 105 years old itself.
But then, so is 128-year-old “Old Trinity-in-the-Fields” (as the old church became known) – at least one Sunday a year. That is due to an unusual bequest in the will of Judge John Young Peete, whose body lies in a family plot, directly behind the little church.
J.N.M. Taylor, a retired pharmacist affectionately known as ‘Mr. Jimmy’ around his hometown Mason, is at 82 the oldest communicant of Trinity Episcopal.
And he is the only person in the church who was in on the beginning of the pilgrimages which have become a tradition now spanning more than 50 years.
“A long time ago, Judge Peete and Rev. Stanley Young and Bishop James M. Maxon and I started going out to that church once a year with our families, for a service and dinner on the grounds,” says Taylor. “It was in a pretty sorry state then, overgrown in weeds and with its roof falling in.
“I don’t know when that was exactly, but I know it was during the old T-Model days, because I remember that’s what I was driving, the first time we went out there.”
One old account of the annual service, appearing in The Commercial Appeal in 1939, indicates the first pilgrimage occurred in 1921. Judge Peete died in 1928.
“When he died, he left a farm which was to be sold, with the money to be invested in the Episcopal Endowment Corporation,” says Taylor. “This fund was to be used to keep up Old Trinity, but there was one stipulation – one service a year must be held at Old Trinity, with a bishop of the church present and with dinner on the grounds.”
And so the communicants of Trinity Episcopal have observed the judge’s wishes through the years, rain or shine.
“I’ve only missed one pilgrimage that I can recall,” says Mr. Jimmy Taylor. “That was many years ago, when we had a good deal of rain, and I just decided not to go. Up until they blacktopped the road a few years ago, the only way to get to Old Trinity was through six inches of dust or six inches of mud.”
Until his age hampered the use of his legs, Taylor annually took charge of the project of cleaning up the church and the grounds for the one-day pilgrimage. Now his son handles that chore.
‘Pull off your shoes. The ground you’re standing on is holy.’
His son also is entrusted with the Church Register, a crumbling volume whose browned ink traces the history of Trinity Episcopal.
There it is recorded that Old Trinity was built on land given by Maj. William Taylor, and that, in those days before the Civil War, it was used on alternate Sundays by the slaves and their masters’ families.
Baptisms are listed separately under “white” and “colored,” with the first entry in the latter category being that of “Letitia, servant of G. T. Taylor” on June 2, 1850.
“They tell me there’s one place in that book where some ladies altered the records to be a little younger than they were,” says Taylor. “But I don’t know if that’s true.”
Fortunately, the church has escaped any serious alterations from hostile elements or individuals. Although menaced by leaning trees and their heavy, over-hanging limbs, it still stands, even if it no longer stands too straight.
But considering the church still has its original, rough floors and crude, cracked pews, Old Trinity has held up amazingly well, according to Neville Seay, principal of Mason’s elementary school and a communicant of Trinity Episcopal.
“We did have someone go into the church and steal a collection plate one time,” he says. “But when they got home they had such a guilty conscience, they mailed it back to us.”
The statue of Judge Peete’s wife, marking her grave, has been damaged in the past, but that was accidental, says Mrs. Helen Somervill Rafferty, a grade-school teacher in Covington.
“The judge sent off to Italy to have that statue made, and it is beautiful,” she says. “But storms have worked it over pretty good, and once it blew over and the head was broken off. We’ve tried to repair it as well as we could.”
As a rule, the pilgrimage in Old Trinity has been held on Trinity Sunday, which is the “first Sunday after Whitsunday” on the theological calendar of the Episcopal church, usually in late May or early June.
This year was no exception. On Trinity Sunday people from Mason and Memphis and various other places gathered at the old church to hear a sermon by Sulfragan Bishop W. Fred Gates Jr. of the Episcopal Diocese of Tennessee, from Memphis, assisted by Trinity Episcopal’s regular priest-in-charge, the Rev. W. Joe Moore.
Filling a goodly portion of the interior of the church and spilling comfortably out onto some pews set up outside the door, they sang hymns from a 1914 Mission Hymnal, took communion and even got to witness a confirmation and the baptism of a 7-month-old girl from Germantown.
And then, when black clouds which had threatened all morning suddenly moved away as if by miracle, they ate dinner on the grounds. Oh, how they ate, gathered around the “family” tables of clans like the Taylors and the Somervills and the Maclins and the Seays, their names all corresponding with those on the tombstones around them.
Mr. Jimmy Taylor, as usual, sat in his place of honor at the head of his family, eating heartily from atop a TV table brought along for him and greeting an endless stream of “cousins.”
“Just about everybody out here is kin to everybody else, when you git right down to it,” he said.
Leon Thomas, the old chauffeur, had helped the Love sisters to a table and now was having a bite to eat, himself.
Throughout the service, he had stood outside the church, kneeling down beside his employers’ car and folding his hands to pray, each time those in the church did. And he had taken off his high-topped shoes after a short while, placing them in the car.
“That’s for sanctification,” he had explained, still walking around in his white-stockinged feet after the service. “The Lord told Moses to ‘pull off your shoes, because the ground you are standing on is holy.'”
Maude Seay, a young Mason schoolteacher, had taken her shoes off after the service, too, but not for sanctification.
“Oh, no,” she said, wiggling her toes in the grass. “I just sent my nephew Brent to the car to get my loafers. Those other shoes make my feet hurt.”
That, too, is as usual – at any church on any Sunday.
[Mid-South the Commercial Appeal Magazine, Memphis, Tenn., July 6, 1975]
Submitted by John Marshall