Philo Harbison

Philo Harbison, wife Lillie Perkins Harbison (leaning on the counter) and friends gather in his hardware and general merchandise store at 128 W. Union St. in Morganton. The store is where services for St. Stephen's Episcopal Church were once held.

Editor's Note: This is the first in a three-part series.

As families and communities celebrate the birth of Christ this holiday season, two Morganton congregations are developing an exciting relationship. The groundbreaking union of two historic churches proves that, in a world where judgment and hatred are never rid, love and unity still exist.

St. Mary’s Episcopal Church and the historically African-American St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church both have their own stories to tell. Both are deeply rooted in the history of Burke County, and they began sharing a priest in 2008 when each was facing financial difficulty.

Since then, joined together by the Rev. Francis King, the two parishes become one. As a new year approaches, the two have created an unconventional but extraordinary union, worshipping and serving the community under one roof as St. Mary’s-St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church.

Like with any union, though, the individual histories of each component play an indelible role in the legacy of the whole.

“This is something remarkable,” said Allen Fullwood, originally a member of the St. Stephen’s parish. “A unique thing has happened here between St. Mary’s and St. Stephen’s.”

In the same way that many African-American churches began, so did St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church of Morganton.

“Not just in the Episcopal Church, but certainly with the Presbyterian and the Methodist as well … there had been the attendance of slaves and freed blacks with the whites, although they were relegated to separate parts of the church,” said Fullwood. “But as one historian had written many years ago, they were emancipated in 1863 and excommunicated in 1867.

“Immediately following the Civil War, the congregations were all separated. That is really how this came about,” said Fullwood. “When we talk about the early beginnings of the black church, St. Stephen’s is a very visible example. The church progressed, although not on its own, and was still dependent on Grace Episcopal.”

In 1889, the church began as an Episcopal Mission in downtown Morganton. According to “The Heritage of Burke County,” collected by the Burke County Historical Society, a small group of interested people joined “in response to the plan of the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina to establish a separate church for the ‘colored’ people in the Morganton area.”

The group met in the upstairs of 128 W. Union St., in what was then a hardware and general store owned by Philo Gaither Harbison. A devoted member of the Gaston Chapel A.M.E. Church, Harbison was the first black man to own a building in downtown Morganton.

He and his wife, Lillian “Lillie” Perkins, were “deeply religious and were very active in community religious activity.” Harbison was considered “one of the more wealthy and influential citizens of the county” and Lillie was instrumental as “a leader in the organization of the church.”

The Rev. McDuffey, priest-in-charge at St. Matthias Church in Asheville, traveled weekly to help organize the mission. According to the St. Mary’s-St. Stephen’s website, the Church was consecrated in 1891 and nine men and women from three families were confirmed: the Averys, the Lytles and the Woodards.

An acre of land adjoining the rectory of Grace Episcopal Church was designated in 1891 where a frame church and schoolhouse were built. In 1897, St. Stephen’s Episcopal School was opened and Lillie Harbison was its first teacher.

The church continued to remain a vital part of the African-American community, and was relocated to 318 Bouchelle St. in 1949.

Fullwood has done his own research on the history of St. Stephen’s and, having been raised near the church, he has an insightful perspective of its role as the hub of the community.

“I don’t know what the membership was in 1949, but I know it was substantial. For awhile, St. Stephen’s really flourished,” said Fullwood. “I was just a kid, but all of the kids in the neighborhood attended the church whether they were Episcopalian or not. You went to Bible school there and participated in other activities.

“I am an Episcopalian of short duration, but I’ve been attending St. Stephen’s much longer than that. I grew up in the neighborhood, which was predominantly African American, and the church was the center of everything. It was the first institution established in that community … When you look at the history of the black church, you’re basically looking at the history of a people.”

From its inception, St. Stephen’s relied on and maintained a close relationship with Grace Episcopal Church. As time passed and generations continued, the connection between the two parishes began to dissipate and, like many churches, St. Stephen’s faced a decline in membership.

By 2008, the church was unable to afford a full-time or even a part-time priest, and reached out to the Episcopal Diocese of Western North Carolina for help. Canon Jim Pritchett proposed the unconventional idea to pool resources with a nearby church, and so began the story of St. Mary’s-St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church.

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