Interesting things about St. Agnes' Church in Cowan
St. Agnes' is one of the area's oldest faith communities and meets in one of the area's oldest church facilities. We invite you to read about some of the very interesting and legendary things about our historic church.
Our first location was a house on the creek
The first Episcopal Church services in Cowan were held in a house on Boiling Fork Creek between 1894 and 1899. Stirling Claiborne, the appointed Lay Reader-in-Charge, described it as “a very small congregation worshiping in an old, dilapidated, two-room house on the side of a hill, which threatened to fall down without a moment’s notice.” He also wrote, “I shall never forget the uneasiness we all felt when the building was filled with people.”
We were first known as St. Saviour's Mission
The congregation that met in the old house on the creek was called St. Saviour's Mission. The name first appeared in the Journal of the Diocese of Tennessee, 1897. A parochial report from the prior year listed the congregation under the name St. Mary's. That name may have been temporarily applied because the St. Mary's Sisterhood in Sewanee was providing pastoral care for the tiny mission.
St. Saviour is a common name among churches in the United Kingdom.
The first Confirmation service was held at the Church of Christ
On September 22, 1898, Bishop Gailor made his first ever pastoral visit to Cowan. His journal entry says that he spent the morning at Trinity Church, Winchester, and arrived in Cowan at 12 noon. That afternoon, he baptized a child in the house used for church services and then baptized a man at Boiling Fork Creek. That night, at 8:00 p.m., he borrowed the Cowan Church of Christ facility and held a service where he confirmed 16 people.
The Nave arrived by train!
The main building at St. Agnes' - known as the Nave - was originally owned by Church of the Ascension in the Shiloh community near Murfreesboro, Tenn. Ascension closed and disbanded in 1898. Bishop Gailor, seeing that the mission in Cowan was growing rapidly, authorized the building to be relocated to Cowan. In 1899 a group of workers traveled to Murfreesboro, deconstructed the building, loaded it onto a train, and had it delivered by rail to Cowan. Men from throughout the area helped unload and reconstruct the building on a site near the railroad donated by the Finchum family. The building proudly sits in this same location to this day.
The money to move the building came from New York City!
Moving a building by train wasn't easy, and it also wasn't cheap! The Sisters of St. Agnes' Chapel in New York City paid the waybill to deliver the building.
To show appreciation, the congregation was renamed St. Agnes' Mission. Bishop Gailor laid the cornerstone for St. Agnes' on May 3, 1899, at 3:30 p.m.
The parish hall was a school house!
Shortly after the church was renamed, Stirling Claiborne, by then an ordained priest, acquired two storage barns from a neighbor down the street and combined them into a school house. A parochial school operated there from 1901 until 1918.
When the parochial school closed the building was used through the years for Sunday school classes, a vicary (priest residence), and briefly as a private residence.
The building was reconfigured into a parish hall in 1974 with a fellowship hall, a kitchen, and a class room.
The copper cross on the roof is an old moonshine still…believe it or not!
John Harvey Soper, a seminarian at St. Luke's Theology School in Sewanee, worked at St. Agnes' between 1933 and 1936. John and some fellow seminarians built the cross on the roof of the church using copper from an old moonshine still. The still was confiscated from "up the mountain" by state revenuers.
The story was published by Ripley's Believe It or Not magazine on August 8, 1936. On that day it appeared in about 360 newspapers in 42 countries and in 17 languages.
Our church bell spent 40 years under the floor!
Our 500-pound church bell sits proudly atop a 24-foot tower and is rung every Sunday morning at 10:30 a.m. It's hard to believe that this same bell was stored under the floor for over 40 years. The bell came with the rest of the building from Murfreesboro and was housed in a belfry on top of the Nave. The belfry and bell were removed in the late-1930's to protect the structural integrity of the building. The bell was out of sight and out of mind until a new under-floor heating system was installed in the mid-1970's. Coincidentally, two other bells were under the floor as well. The two smaller bells were sold and the proceeds used to construct the new tower. A group of workers from Marquette Cement Plant sandblasted, assembled, and painted the forgotten relic, and then Rigsby's Wrecker Service hoisted the bell onto its new perch.
St. Agnes' closed only once…not twice!
Resources were stretched to the limit during World War II, but sugar and coffee weren't the only things in short supply back then. Several priests in the Sewanee area went into military service and thus put a heavy workload on the remaining area priests. Services were cancelled at St. Agnes' and the congregation briefly disbanded for several months. That was the only time that St. Agnes' closed.
In 1989 a rumor was told that St. Agnes' had closed again. At the time the congregation had very few members and no assigned priest, and Sunday services were suspended for two weeks. To add to the rumor, the Diocese of Tennessee launched an inquiry to see if the church had closed. However, during the inquiry a deacon and Cowan resident, The Rev'd Frank Sanders, came on board and helped resume Sunday services. The congregation quickly recovered.
Our church organ has the hum of a human voice!
St. Agnes' owns a unique and valuable 1952 model Hammond C-2 Series organ. This rare instrument was a given to the church in the early 1970's by Mr. Rutherford Cravens of Houston, Texas. (We are told that Fr. Phillip Werlein and Mr. Johnny Finchum drove all the way to Houston to pick up and deliver this special gift.)
Older Hammond organs use an electro-mechanical tonewheel to produce a warm, harmonic sound that closely resembles the sound of a human voice. In February 2014 the organ was upgraded with solid-state pre-amplifiers to replace the original tube-type sound emitters.
The front door tells a complicated story!
The front door of the Nave at St. Agnes' was an old storefront door installed in the early 1970's from a commercial building in Winchester. The congregation was in a very difficult position when this door started to show its age. No area contractor wanted to tackle the difficult task of building. After years of searching, we finally found a master carpenter in Atlanta willing to custom-build and install a door that would add to the historic character of the building.
The carpenter admitted that this was the most difficult job he had tackled in his 35 years in business! The story about our front door was published in the newsletter of the Diocese of Tennessee. Click here to read it.
We used to transport our youth in a funeral limousine!
St. Agnes' was full of young people in the early 1970's. While larger, more endowed churches in the area employed modern church buses, St. Agnes' made do with a most unusual, but very affordable vehicle - a retired limousine previously owned by a funeral home! In those days our teenagers arrived at Sewanee's student union bowling alley in style! (They were, however, outclassed by a local family whose family station wagon was a hearse!)