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Volunteers are restoring Old Bethel Church

Monday, October 23, 2006

(Photo)
Volunteers worked to rebuild Jackson's Old Bethel Church on Thursday by using the church's original 200-year-old log timbers.
(Diane L. Wilson)
Thursday was cloudy and cold, with rain falling continually. But the elements didn't put a damper on work being done on a gravel road near Goose Creek just outside Jackson.

This day wasn't going to stop volunteers from rebuilding Old Bethel Baptist Church.

In the rain, men pounded hammers on 200-year-old logs. Chain saws roared throughout the morning.

The volunteers don't have much time left to finish the restoration project of the 200-year-old Baptist Church. In fact, the project is scheduled to be complete by next week -- in time for the 2006 Missouri Baptist Convention's meeting in Cape Girardeau.

Melvin Gately, a Cape Girardeau resident and member of the Missouri Baptist Convention's historical commission, isn't worried about the time constraint. He knows God will help the group finish renovating the church just in time for the state convention.

"We'll get it done. I have complete faith that it will be done in time," Gately said Thursday.

A little more than a year ago, those involved in the Old Bethel Baptist Church restoration project gathered at the site for a picnic and groundbreaking ceremony.

By last Thursday, all four walls of the church were up, and the stone fireplace was reconstructed. This week the roof's trusses will be installed in time for volunteers to place the wooden shingles this weekend.

Ten volunteers were working in the rain Thursday -- which was the first day since April they had experienced any bad weather during the project. "I've been working out here since that second log went up," said Roger Riley of Jackson.

The church's four walls contain 10 rows of logs, most of which came from the original building.

Riley and his wife, Marlene, come to work at the church on days when they can. Like most of the volunteers, they're both retired.

The couple's been working on the project since it began last year.

"Roger came out here first and was real excited about it. I got to thinking that there were things I could do out here too," said Marlene Riley, one of a few women working on the project.

"Instead of sitting at home, I figured I could be out here making my mark in history," she said.

The history of the church itself is significant -- it was the first Baptist church west of the Mississippi River.

Non-Catholic services were banned west of the Mississippi until the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. In 1806, what would become the Bethel congregation met and agreed to build a church. At that time, the area likely was home to only 50 Baptists, Gately said.

Hundreds of years of history are buried in an old cemetery next to the church.

Lyle Jones of Advance found his great-great-great-great-grandfather's tombstone in Old Bethel's cemetery when he began working on the project this summer.

"He's not buried there but his stone's here. I've heard he's actually buried somewhere in a field about a mile from here. It's really amazing that I found his tombstone," Jones said.

Marlene Riley also discovered a unique historic coincidence while working on the project. She's originally from Alaska and moved to Jackson when she married.

When she began working on the project, Marlene Riley found a familiar headstone in the cemetery. A woman named Nancy Sheppard is buried in the lawn. Marlene Riley's ancestors are Sheppards.

"It's the most bizarre thing. It seems strange that my husband and I got married, moved here, and now we're working on this project with relatives buried in that cemetery," she said. "I know it's God working in our lives."

The Old Bethel restoration project has drawn volunteers from as far away as St. Louis, including Wayman Starnes.

Starnes is a retired carpenter and comes to Jackson about every two weeks with several friends from St. Louis to work on the project.

"It's been very heartwarming to be a part of this. It's something I can do to give back a little," he said. "I also enjoy meeting new Christians."

The fellowship is a main reason why many of the workers continue the Old Bethel Baptist Church restoration project.

"I have a ball doing this," said Steve Strom, who's been a part of the restoration project since the beginning.

"I think these other people enjoy working out here too because they keep coming back. It's too much work to do just because you have to," Strom said.

The Old Bethel Baptist Church is owned by the Missouri Baptist Convention. Gately said tours of the church and cemetery arere planned once the project is complete.

jfreeze@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 246


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