Steele Creek Presbyterian Church, founded when North Carolina was still a British colony, is the second oldest house of worship in Mecklenburg County.
But to stay alive, this 257-year-old church may soon have to decide to give up its land, maybe even its name.
The thoroughly modern reason: Its close proximity to the ever-expanding Charlotte Douglas International Airport, which has its eye on the property that’s been home to the church since Scots-Irish settlers had their first worship service there in a brush arbor – a lean-to built with tree limbs – in 1760.
This Sunday, the 351-member church will vote on whether to pursue a possible merger with one or more of the other Presbyterian churches in the Steele Creek area.
Any merger would likely mean eventually selling the land to the airport, which is already in talks with Steele Creek Presbyterian over the purchase of its manse. This former home of the church’s pastors is down the road and across the street from the church’s current sanctuary, built in 1889.
Pursuing a merger and all that might entail is an emotional decision that has split the congregation at a church whose motto is “Remembering the Past, Serving the Present, Anticipating the Future.”
Many on both sides of the debate have generations of ancestors buried in the church’s historic cemetery – the final resting place for 25 Revolutionary War veterans, 101 Civil War veterans, the parents of evangelist Billy Graham and a signer or two of the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence.
The airport has no interest in buying the cemetery and the church has no plans to sell it. But it’s located adjacent to the sanctuary, which would change hands.
“I was born and raised in that church,” said retiree John Freeman, who’s 82 and plans to vote against the merger motion. “I want to stay until we have to move. There are still roads that lead to the church. We (he and wife Annette) can still get there. Planes don’t bother us. You get used to it.”
But Walter Neely, 69, another life-long member, said Steele Creek Presbyterian must be realistic and explore possibilities. He’s clerk of the church’s session, the elected leadership body that is bringing the merger idea up for a vote and will pursue talks with the other churches if it passes.
“If we don’t do anything, we’re going to be in the middle of an (airport) industrial park,” said Neely, who favors the motion. “If we want to continue to exist, we probably ought to be flexible and look at our options.”
More jets, fewer worshippers
Bumping up against the growing airport has been an increasingly dominant fact of life for Steele Creek Presbyterian Church – and homeowners in the area – for decades. For a long time, more than half the congregation lived in neighborhoods just north of the church. But most moved away, said Neely.
In the early 1970s, the church had more than 1,000 members. Now it’s down to 351, with maybe 170 of them attending Sunday services.
“We have to maintain our buildings with declining membership,” Neely said. “We don’t have as many staff as we used to and we’re having trouble meeting budget.”
Steele Creek Presbyterian’s 40 acres constitute one of the largest remaining parcels in the area that the city-owned airport hasn’t yet purchased. Most of the homeowners around the former pastoral residence have already sold their houses to the airport. Mecklenburg County real estate records show the airport bought the house just north of Steele Creek Presbyterian Church’s pastoral residence, on 1 acre, for $44,5000 in September.
The house just south of the residence, on 2.3 acres: Bought in August for $180,000.
I was born and raised in that church. I want to stay until we have to move.
John Freeman, 82, member of Steele Creek Presbyterian Church
The airport says it is interested in the church’s land – minus the cemetery – but has no plans to demolish the church sanctuary if a sale ends up happening.
“CLT is committed to working with the church to find purchase options that work for them and for the airport,” a spokesperson said in an emailed statement in response to questions from the Observer, adding that the talks started at the church’s request. “If CLT and the church do come to a purchase agreement on the church buildings, the Airport will be committed to preserving the historic property. We would anticipate evaluating reuse options for the building, but we are not considering demolishing the historic structure.”
Laws protecting sites registered as historic places would also require not only the continued care and preservation of the cemetery at Steele Creek Presbyterian, but also maintenance of “the physical integrity of the property,” said Dan Morrill of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission.
“One has to be very, very sensitive to (the church property’s) sense of space,” said Morrill, the commission’s consulting director and principal administrative officer. “That means being sensitive to the tree cover, and the connection between the sanctuary and the cemetery.”
Charlotte Douglas International Airport has been steadily buying land for decades, especially north and south of the main runways. The airport typically buys out homeowners and businesses affected by jet noise and then demolishes the structures. Federal funds reimburse Charlotte Douglas for much of the costs.
There was a time when, in deference to churches, planes were not supposed to take off from the Charlotte airport’s west runway between 11 a.m. and noon on Sundays.
In 1995, the airport began working with Steele Creek Presbyterian and four other nearby churches to soundproof their sanctuaries, allowing planes to run full throttle off the west runway.
But the Rev. Jeff Pinkston, the church’s pastor for the last 10 years, said jet noise is still a problem for those engaged in outdoor activities, such as when children in the church’s daycare play outside and when there are burial services at the cemetery.
Plus, Pinkston said, the airport has other plans that could someday make the church a neighbor to a loud industrial-like area with trucks and railroad cars.
The airport’s rail cargo yard, located between two runways, is seen as a major economic development tool. Norfolk Southern operates the yard, transferring cargo containers between trains and trucks. Charlotte Douglas’ long-term plans call for tearing down the houses in the area it has purchased south of the the airport and developing new warehouse and logistics facilities for shipping.
“Based on our conversations with (the airport),” Pinkston said, “it would be uncomfortable for us here.”
‘It’s really sad’
Still, the prospect of leaving behind the land that has had such a rich history is just as demoralizing to many at Steele Creek Presbyterian.
For church member Brenda Bledsoe, whose husband, Lewis, was pastor for nearly 30 years, “it’s really sad. We know that, with the airport coming upon us lately, we don’t really have a choice.”
The church traces its beginnings to the early- to mid-18th century.
When the king of England took control of the Carolinas, the royal government began to promote settlement by non-Native American people, said local historian Morrill. That led to a “land rush” between 1730 and 1770, with a multitude of Scots-Irish Presbyterians streaming into what is now Mecklenburg County from mostly Pennsylvania, Delaware and Maryland.
They started churches. Steele Creek Presbyterian is one of Charlotte’s “seven sisters,” the first churches – all Presbyterian – started in the area. Sugaw Creek Presbyterian is the oldest. It was organized in 1756.
Four years after that, Steele Creek Presbyterian was established. The church got its name from a small stream that rises from a spring near Shopton Road and Steele Creek Road and flows into South Carolina.
Seven sanctuaries were built on the site over the years. Slaves worshipped from the balcony until after the Civil War, when they left to start their own churches, including McClintock Presbyterian and Mount Olive Presbyterian.
According to the lore, each of the member families at Steele Creek Presbyterian were once assigned a tree from which to tie their horses.
Even into the 20th century, it was a place that was cited as a famous example of the rural setting and ambience of country churches.
“One cannot put a higher level of historical and cultural significance on a property than what Steele Creek Presbyterian Church and its setting possess,” said Morrill. “It’s as high as it gets.”
Of particular historical importance is the church’s cemetery.
The names on the old gravestones later became the names of prominent Charlotte area streets, schools and politicians: Berryhill, McDowell, Coffey, Knox, Irwin, Polk and Spratt.
The oldest grave bears the name of Sarah Knox, who died at age 64 in 1763.
The cemetery also includes unique headstones carved by members of the Bigham family – skilled, creative craftsmen in the 18th century whose work qualifies, Morrill said, as “extraordinary death art.”
Some of the stone cutters also meticulously carved the headstones with detailed stories of romance and heartbreak. One family, an inscription says, lost three children within three hours to disease.
The late Lewis Bledsoe, who retired as the church’s pastor in 2001, is also buried in the cemetery. And his wife said she and their daughters have designated plots next to his.
The current pastor, Pinkston, said that, even if Steele Creek Presbyterian ends up moving or merging, the church will still own the cemetery. Members and others will still have access to the cemetery and can still be buried there.
“The cemetery will remain here,” Pinkston said. “(But) we have funds for its perpetual care.”
If the church congregation ends up moving to a new location, the pastor said, it will honor its heritage in new ways.
Pinkston anticipates “some kind of historical room, to tell the history of the church.”
Crucial vote Sunday
The church’s vote Sunday will determine what’s next.
Approval will mean the session can try to negotiate a possible merger with one or more of the four other nearby Presbyterian churches. All are “daughter” churches birthed by Steele Creek Presbyterian over the years – Central Steele Creek, McClintock, Pleasant Hill and Mount Olive.
Increasingly, Pinkston said, the five churches have done a lot of things together, including Lenten services, youth group meetings and a mission project.
But it’s too early to say whether the other churches would want to merge with Steele Creek Presbyterian and, if they do, would be open to changing their name.
In fact, Central Steele Creek and McClintock have initially told Steele Creek Presbyterian that they are not interested in combining congregations.
“We’re still hoping that will change if we pass (Sunday’s motion) and go back to them,” Pinkston said.
The airport is an economic engine and it has great plans. And (they’re) squeezing us.
The Rev. Jeff Pinkston, pastor of Steele Creek Presbyterian Church
Another possible option: Relocate.
With money from a land sale to the airport, some members said, Steele Creek Presbyterian may be able to find property and build a new sanctuary.
“This could also be an opportunity to grow, maybe in a different area,” said Bledsoe. “So there’s still hope.”
But with only 351 members and land in Steele Creek in demand, others at the church don’t consider that realistic.
One thing nearly everybody agrees on is that the airport is on a path that will make it difficult for the church to stay the same.
“The airport is an economic engine and it has great plans,” said Pinkston. “And (they’re) squeezing us.”
Charlotte Douglas has already grown in just about every direction.
North of the runways, the area between Interstate 85 and the airport was once a neighborhood. Starting in the 1970s, Charlotte Douglas bought most of the land. The houses have since been demolished, and the airport has used some of the property to build a new car maintenance and storage facility. Last year, the airport bought one of the final pieces of property in the area: the Adult Super Store off Wilkinson Boulevard, for which Charlotte Douglas paid $755,000.
South of the airport, Charlotte City Council authorized the airport’s planned purchase of about 370 acres in 2013 for an estimated price tag of $35 million. Since the opening of the airport’s fourth parallel runway just to the north, jet noise over the area has increased significantly. The area around Steele Creek Road contains about 100 homes, most of which have already been bought. The airport has negotiated with the homeowners, rather than using eminent domain to forcibly take the property.
And the city, which owns the airport, has long owned the wooded land behind the church itself, on the east side of Steele Creek Road.
If the airport eventually becomes the owner of the church property, Morrill of the local Historic Landmarks Commission said, the city, the airport and church will have to be “very, very careful” to respect the historical character of the land.
“To deny change is to deny life,” Morrill said. “It’s not the job of historical preservation to prevent change. That’s futile.” The goal of his organization, he said, is to “manage change so that the historical integrity of the property and its setting is maintained.”
Bledsoe, widow of the former longtime pastor, understands change must come. But the possibility of saying goodbye to 257 years of heritage saddens her.
“This church has such a long, wonderful history, it’s hard to give it up,” she said. “You don’t like to see things end.”