The Christian church’s birth was at Pentecost, as described in the Book of Acts. As Christianity spread and became a politically recognized religion, theological and cultural differences led to splits within Christianity. Early in the eleventh century, the western portions of Europe came under the religious and political authority of the Roman Catholic Church, while Eastern Europe and parts of Asia came under the authority of the Eastern Orthodox Church. Early in the sixteenth century, Martin Luther, a German priest and professor, started the movement known as the Protestant Reformation. In 1517 he posted a list of 95 grievances against the Roman Catholicism on a church door in Wittenberg, Germany and was excommunicated from the Roman Catholic Church. Some 20 years later, John Calvin, a French theologian influential in Switzerland, further refined the reformers’ new way of thinking about the nature of God and God’s relationship with humanity in what came to be known as Reformed theology. John Knox, a Scotsman who studied with Calvin in Geneva, Switzerland, took Calvin’s teachings back to Scotland and started a movement that would become the Presbyterian Church. Migrations of Scotch-Irish in the early eighteenth century brought Presbyterianism to the Americas.
1560 – John Knox brings Calvinism to Scotland.
1689 – Presbyterianism becomes the established religion of Scotland.
1706 – The first Presbyterian Church is established in the Americas in Philadelphia.
1739 – The First Great Awakening begins in the colonies. Presbyterian minister Jonathan Edwards was a prominent leader in the revivals.
1776 – Presbyterian minister and president of Princeton Seminary John Witherspoon signs the Declaration of Independence.
1842 – Henry Highland Garnet, a freed slave, is ordained by Presbyterians in New York as a Minister of Word and Sacrament.
1861 – The Presbyterian church is split over issues of slavery and states’ rights.
1956 – Margaret Towner becomes the first U.S. woman ordained in the Presbyterian Church as a Minister of Word and Sacrament.
1983 – The Presbyterian Church in the U.S. (PCUS) (the so-called “southern branch” of Presbyterians) reunites with the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. (UPCUSA) (the so-called “northern branch”) to form the Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUSA).
All of the land in the area that now encompasses Fort Mill was originally Catawba Native American tribal territory. Known initially as “Little York”, the area that would 113 years later officially become the town of Fort Mill had its beginning in the 1760’s when Thomas (Kanawha) Spratt settled in Catawba territory. He and his wife, en route from Charlotte to Abbeville, SC, had intended only spending the night here, but during their overnight stop they were persuaded by tribal leaders to become permanent residents. Spratt became a great friend to the Catawbas, and was given a large tract of land on which Fort Mill would eventually evolve. During the years immediately following, they were joined by other families including the McKee, White, Springs, Harris, Barnett, Webb, and Garrison families, which began to populate the remote backwoods area.
In 1756, the British army began construction on a fort to protect the native Catawba and Cherokee tribes from enemy tribes. The fort was never finished. Then in the 1760’s, Webb’s Mill, a grist mill, began operating on Steel Creek, a short distance from what would become Unity’s first site atop a nearby hill. The “fort” and the “mill” would 70 years later provide the name for a growing village, Fort Mill.
Almost all of these pioneers were farmers who had recently emigrated from England, Scotland, and Ireland. They had come to America to make a new life for themselves and to escape religious persecution and prosecution for their beliefs. Practically all were of Presbyterian denomination and had brought with them a strong Christian faith.
The decade of 1780-90 was one of the most significant in this young nation’s history. The Continental Army, aided greatly by the Scots-Irish Presbyterian Whigs, had finally defeated the British and their allies, the Loyalists, resulting in victory in the American Revolution.
By the middle 1780’s the settlers in this neck of the woods were in sufficient numbers to warrant a visit from a minister with a great missionary spirit. He was the Rev. Joseph McRea, pastor of Steele Creek Presbyterian Church in Mecklenburg County. He immediately recognized the need and a desire for a house of worship, and the fact that all were of Presbyterian heritage left little question in his mind concerning the organization of a church.
Just six months after the Constitution was signed, one year before George Washington became the first president, and 85 years before the town of Fort Mill was incorporated, Unity Presbyterian Church was organized in a wilderness area of upstate South Carolina by pioneer settlers.
Unity’s first site was selected due to its proximity to Webb’s Mill (grist mill) on Steele Creek which had become the center of activity in this remote area with several log homes, a store, and a tavern in the vicinity. The first sanctuary was an L-shaped log structure located on a high hill overlooking Steele Creek across from the grist mill and the Catawba Trading Path (today’s Springfield Parkway). The building, erected by church members, was made from native timber as were the furnishings, which were all hand-hewn.
Following months of prayerful work, the first service was held on March 18, 1788, with Rev. Joseph McRea preaching the dedicatory sermon. The church was affiliated with the Concord, NC Presbytery. The unmarked first site exists today on private property in the area of the Steele Creek bridge on Springfield Parkway.
A cemetery was started behind the church and one grave is still visible with its gravestone intact and legible after some 220 years. Buried there is Andrew Spratt who died in 1804.
In the 1980’s the cornerstones to the church were found on the wooded property and are now preserved in the columbarium beside the Historic Sanctuary.
In England and Scotland, from which many pioneers had emigrated, strong emphasis was attached to the “House” from which one descended, and the houses of “York” and “Lancaster” were represented among the local settlers. In the “old country” there was constant competition between the two houses for supremacy which often led to bitter feelings. Rev. McRea and wise members of the congregation were determined that former animosities would be laid aside and all would be united under the banner of Christ. The name “Unity” was selected overwhelmingly.
A fire totally destroyed the first church in 1804, with the building having been occupied for only 16 years. A decision was made to abandon the site, and a new church was to be built one mile southwest on property donated by John Springs.
In 1805, in a heavily wooded, somewhat isolated area one mile southwest of Unity’s first site, a new log sanctuary was built. This one was in the shape of an “L” with a cemetery (possibly pre-existing) out back. The new building was erected during the ministry of the Rev. Humphrey Hunter, and it had a fireplace in the session room where services were often held in the winter. The congregation was quite small.
Down the hill from the front of the church was a free-flowing spring which was a favorite pre-service meeting place of the males in the congregation. In those days the church served a dual purpose – spiritual and social. Transportation was by wagon, buggy, or horseback with some traveling as far as 10 miles on Sunday mornings. Some would come as much as two hours early to meet and talk with friends, sharing news of the week. The spring was still in existence in a yard just off Laurel Court until it was covered up in the early 2000’s. Today the site of Unity’s second church and cemetery is at the intersection of Unity St. and Marshall St.
While there has been conjecture down through the years as to whether the church or the cemetery was on the site first, wisdom has it that the cemetery was likely in place in the late 1700s, some years before Unity’s second church was built in 1805. Before an act of vandalism in the 1950’s destroyed most of the gravestones, it was noted that a number of graves were there before the 1805 date that Unity’s second church was built. Also, a number of Revolutionary War veterans lie buried there. No explanation has ever been given as to why a cemetery would have been located in what was then such an isolated spot. The cemetery, then known as the Revolutionary Graveyard, is now a historic landmark known as Old Unity Cemetery, today located at the intersection of Marshall and Unity St. in the Whiteville Park section.
Unity’s second site was never popular with a majority of the members because the spot was too isolated, being a mile away from any other activity. Among church members, strong sentiment to move peaked in the 1830’s, and the decision was made to abandon the second building and erect a new, more modern building “nearer civilization.” When Unity’s congregation voted to move out of the woods, they also voted to change the name to Fort Mill Presbyterian Church to more closely identify with the growing but unincorporated town, and it would be known by this name for 87 years. The second church eventually fell into ruin and the old cemetery behind it began a long period of decline.
During this period the area had entered a time of growth with much of it centered around the intersection of the Catawba Trading Path (now Banks & Steele Streets), and Camden Road (now Tom Hall St.). A post office had been established and several houses and businesses were proximate to this location.
During the pastorate of the Rev. P. E. Bishop, the new, and third, church was built in 1838. The site was located just down from the above described intersection on Camden Road (now Tom Hall St.) on the site now occupied by Wells Fargo Bank. The new building was a frame clapboard structure with a steeple and a belfry, and eventually in 1874 a new cemetery was opened behind the church which today is known as Unity Cemetery. In the 1920s the cemetery would be transferred to the Town of Fort Mill and become the town’s municipal cemetery.
Some 10 ministers served as pastors during the 42 years that the church occupied this building.
Until the arrival of Dr. J. B. Mack as pastor in 1876, the third church had a belfry, but no bell. Shortly after Dr. Mack became pastor, an order was placed with a Baltimore foundry and bell maker for a church bell. The bell was cast, delivered, and hung in the belfry in 1877, bearing the inscription: “Presbyterian Church, Fort Mill, S. C., Rev. J. B. Mack, Pastor. Henry McShane and Company, Baltimore, Md. 1877”
Fire swept through the building in 1880 destroying virtually everything inside including the church records and other valuable items that dated back almost a century. The heavy bell fell to the ground from the belfry as the building was consumed. The following day when the ruins cooled, church members were amazed to find that the bell was undamaged. It hangs in the belfry of the Historic Sanctuary today, calling the congregation to worship as it has for over 135 years.
Another of the few items saved was a little wooden chest that had been given as a gift to the church by a cabinet maker who’s shop was adjacent to the church. The shop specialized in making wooden coffins, and the chests served as pedestals on which the coffins would be displayed. Saved from the fire, this same small chest would have a second life holding bulletins and literature in the vestibule of the Historic Sanctuary, and now a third life, holding food donations for the Fort Mill Care Center in the narthex in our sanctuary today.
Following the fire that destroyed the third church, congregational leaders began immediately to make plans for a new sanctuary. A site committee selected a pine-covered knoll approximately 300 yards west of the lot on which the burned church stood. Mindful that two of the previous three church buildings had burned, the congregation was wary of erecting another wooden building. This sanctuary would be made of brick made by hand from Fort Mill clay.
A building committee was appointed with meetings held in the Fort Mill Depot. Subsequently, an architect was employed to draw the plans and Zeb Bradford, a Fort Mill contractor, was engaged to supervise construction. The new church was to be of Victorian architecture, and construction began early in the spring of 1881. By autumn, the building was completed and it is believed the first service was held in late October, 1881, under the pastorate of Rev. F. L. Leeper.
Only the sanctuary was in the original 1881 construction. The exterior looked much as it does today with its four spires, windows, and dark brick walls. The interior has undergone more change down through the years.
Originally, there was a small balcony where African-American members sat who only recently had emerged from slavery. Two small rooms were beneath the balcony on each side of the vestibule, with one designated as the Session Room. Shortly after 1900, the balcony was sealed off from the rest of the sanctuary creating an upstairs room for the Men’s Bible Class. In 1938, it would be reopened and new pews installed.
Down front, on each side was a huge wood stove that provided some heat in winter. Later these were replaced by a hot air furnace which emitted some heat and much smoke through a metal grill in the floor immediately in front of the pulpit. The choir loft was a slightly elevated platform in the corner to the left of the pulpit and encircled by a low rail. It was equipped with an ancient organ with a long handle-like lever for which young men would be recruited to pump during services. Later it was succeeded by a foot-powered organ, and still later, by a pipe organ recessed in the back wall.
To the right of the pulpit was an area known as the “Amen Corner”. Two or three pews were turned parallel to the wall and perpendicular to the other pews. Here, as a rule, sat several elders. On occasion with, or sometimes without, provocation they would voice loud “Amens” when a minister became emphatic, or something happened that met with their approval.
There was some question as to the type of windows that should be used, and a timely “coincidence” occurred. Word reached the building committee that a surplus of windows had been imported from a company in England for a church in Concord, NC. The company had mistakenly shipped twice the number of windows ordered by the church. Zeb Bradford, the local contractor for the sanctuary’s construction, was sent to Concord to check on the windows, and reported the availability of a number of beautiful multi-colored windows.
The windows were acquired and were shipped to Fort Mill by rail. Certainly more than mere coincidence, these are the windows that today add so much beauty to the Historic Sanctuary.
Around 1920, a pastoral manse was erected that would stand for some 95 years on the grassy knoll beside the driveway to the left of the sanctuary. For half a century it would serve as the home for eight ministers and their families. In the 1970s, Rev. Dr. Roy Watkins built a new family home on Fairway Drive, and the aging manse was turned into a “church house” and with extensive renovation, was used for Sunday School classes, Boy Scout meetings and other activities. A handsome, two-story brick structure with a terraced front lawn, the manse, along with the sanctuary, would be placed on the National Register of Historic Places. With the construction of a new education and office wing to the right of the sanctuary in the 1980’s, the manse would eventually fall into disuse and was demolished in 2015.
In the first half of the twentieth century, Fort Mill was a much different town than it is today. The residential population was tightly knit around the downtown area with many families. Tom Hall St. was no exception as it was lined with dozens of single family homes. The street functioned as Fort Mill’s residential boulevard and its sidewalks were populated with people walking back and forth to shop downtown and to visit with neighbors. Central to all of this was Unity’s church hill which served as an unofficial “central park” and playground. Scenes of kids (often racially mixed) playing baseball in the spring and summer and football (always tackle) in the fall were not uncommon on the church hill’s spacious lawn. For the many nearby residents who walked to church, there was a ground-stone walkway leading from Tom Hall St. up through the center of the church hill, the outline of which is still visible today. And today, the church hill still serves as a wonderful place for various outdoor activities of Unity.
At Homecoming Day services on September 14, 1924, during the installation service of the Rev. George W. Belk as Unity pastor, a motion was made by Col. T. B. Spratt to restore the name Unity Presbyterian Church after 87 years as Fort Mill Presbyterian Church. The motion was seconded by W. R. Bradford, Sr. who pointed out that in changing the name from Unity 87 years ago the congregation had sacrificed much of its historical heritage. The motion passed 86 to 3.
Story: Recalling the Sanctuary (known today as the Historic Sanctuary) in the 1930’s (Recalled from J. D. Jones)
The church hill was dominated by tall pine trees with a few Model A and Model T Fords parked among them on Sunday mornings. A few horses and buggies parked on the dirt oval circle in front of the church, one of them owned by Mr. Rupert Kimbrell. A water trough for the horses was located on the circle just to the right of the drive leading up to the right side of the manse. Many tall pine trees were on the left, right, and behind the church. Numerous large grasshoppers were seen that spit black liquid.
The year is 1930. It’s 4:00 on a cold winter Sunday morning and boy in his early teens carrying a lantern is making his way up through the dark woods towards the rear of the sanctuary. It’s young Bill Bradford who is growing up with his family in the large frame house next to the church on Tom Hall St. (currently the site of Unity’s parking lot). Saving money for college, he’s the church’s sexton earning $10 a month. The trek among the dark pines is a little ominous until he reaches the rear of the sanctuary where some steps lead down to a door which opens to a small dug-out area beneath the church. It’s there that the furnace resides and it’s his job to fire it up with wood and coal so that the sanctuary will have heat for the morning service. He accomplishes the task and heads back down the hill for a couple of hours rest.
In the sanctuary there is a large metal grate in the floor in front of the pulpit which often emits more smoke than heat, so at 7:00 A.M. he again goes to the sanctuary, raises the windows to let the smoke out, then closes them so that it will be warm in time for the service. Once again, he heads back down the hill, but he’ll return for Sunday School.
By 1917 there was a need for Sunday School space and the Deacons got busy. To raise money for an eventual building addition it was decided that “subscriptions” would be sold which would be invested in Liberty Bonds. By 1937, $16,000 had been raised- enough to begin construction. This first major building addition took place in 1938 while the Rev. A. W. Shaw was pastor. A two story structure was built attached to and extending the length of the rear wall of the sanctuary.
The ground floor was occupied by a spacious fellowship hall complete with a kitchen, and additional rooms for the Ladies Parlor, and a room that would be used variously as a nursery and kindergarten space. The upstairs housed several Sunday school rooms for children of various ages as well as a small church library. Each Sunday school room had a piano for singing with a chorus of youthful voices to be heard down thru the hall on Sunday mornings. The original outside upstairs entrance still exists at the left rear of the Historic Sanctuary.
Prior to the building addition of 1938, there was no dedicated space for social activities, and the new fellowship hall and kitchen created and fulfilled this opportunity. On Sunday mornings the adult Sunday school class met there, led for many years by A. O. Jones, Sr., and on Sunday evenings at 6:30, the Young People’s meeting, instituted and led in the 50’s and 60’s by Rev. J. E. Wayland, regularly met. On Tuesday evenings, Boy Scouts, and on Wednesday nights it was the location of Prayer Meeting followed by choir practice.
Around 1950 an outdoor deck was constructed at edge of the lawn to the rear of the fellowship hall building that would overhang the slope adjacent to a wooded playground area. Often from here Easter sunrise service sermons would be delivered, and on occasion outdoor Sunday services would be held in the spring and summer with the congregation seated on folding chairs on the lawn behind the fellowship hall.
The fellowship hall created a room for opportunities heretofore unimagined. This meeting space would serve for over 60 years until a new fellowship hall was built in 1992. The old hall then became known as Unity Hall, and would be eventually destroyed in the December 2018 fire. It existed where the labyrinth area is today.
Unity “Family Nights”
“Family Night” during the post-war 1950s was a quarterly social “church family feast” always held on a Wednesday night in the fellowship hall. Long tables were set up in the hall on which a bounty of food would be brought and placed by members of the congregation – fried chicken, ham, all kinds of vegetables – beans, yams, greens, salads, homemade biscuits, cakes and pies of all descriptions- all cooked up by and for the church family and brought to the tables. Everyone got in line, picked up a paper plate (or two), a blessing was asked, and the consumption began. There was no program or agenda other than finding a place to sit – inside or outside – and to eat, mix and mingle. Family Nights were true highlights of the year, looked forward to, and seemingly attended by all.
The Annual Children’s “Christmas Tree”
Another memorable fellowship hall activity much anticipated in the late 1940s and 50s was known as the “Christmas Tree”. This was an enjoyable Christmas program of scripture reading and singing presented by the younger, pre-teen children and witnessed by the adults. It was normally held on the second Wednesday night before Christmas. There would be a big Christmas tree in the hall surrounded by large numbers of cellophane bags containing fruits, nuts, peppermint sticks, and hard candies….tantalizing, but only to be accessed after the program. Once the children finished their readings and singing, Santa Claus would magically appear, and distribute the bags to the delight of the children among whom there would be much speculation of who Santa “really was”. All figured the rewards were worth their efforts.
“Young People’s” Meeting”
Older adults who grew up in Unity and Fort Mill will recall “Young Peoples”. During the 1950’s and 60’s, this was a meeting held every Sunday night at 6:30 in the fellowship hall for church youth ages 12 through high school and was conducted by Unity’s minister, Rev. J. E. Wayland. This meeting was steadfastly attended by not only Unity’s youth, but other kids from the town as well. Back then, everyone knew each other, most all going through grades 1-12 together.
Rev. Wayland believed in instilling the Bible through direct methods. Upon the reverend’s random signal to the group, the books of the Bible in order would be recited (usually shouted). This might occur at any time. Also, attendees might be singled out for an impromptu prayer at any point, or called upon to recite their favorite Bible verse. For some reason, John 11:35, “Jesus wept”, was regularly cited among certain of the boys. The group also had its own five or six songs that were sung regularly at every meeting with the spiritual, “Do Lord”, among those delivered with rousing enthusiasm. In all, Rev. Wayland’s mission was entirely met in giving this youthful bunch a solid foundation in the basics.
During this period, Unity, its pastors, and congregations were unusually active in home mission work. Much of it began during the pastorate of the Rev. Samuel P. Bowles, 1944-52. He was a dedicated believer in outpost missions, resulting in three Presbyterian churches in the Fort Mill area beginning as Unity outposts: Community, Doby’s Bridge, and Riverview. The concept was to provide outreach to serve the outlying populated areas in a time when travel into town on Sunday mornings was more difficult. Doby’s Bridge and Riverview churches were established in what at that time were rural areas to the south and west of Fort Mill respectively, while Community Presbyterian Church was established on N. White St. in Fort Mill to serve the populous mill village area.
Unity was also instrumental in encouraging the establishment of two additional area churches: Grace Presbyterian, in 1995, and Faith Presbyterian in 2007.
In the summer of 1940, Unity Presbyterian Church established a Sunday school in an old store building to serve the families in the Springs Mills #1 Village. The Sunday school thrived until WW II intervened and it closed. It then opened and closed again until persistence lead to the Sunday school meeting at the homes of the Seymours and the Osbornes. The Sunday school continued to grow and a building fund was established. On April 6, 1957 the present property on N. White St. was purchased for $6,000, and on November 11 the congregation moved into their new building under the pastorate of Unity’s Rev. J. E. Wayland. Tragedy struck on September 2, 1986 when fire destroyed the fellowship hall and damaged the church. A new “Founders Hall” was dedicated on February 22, 1987. Community Presbyterian has faced many challenges, but has been blessed with many successes and a strong faith in God’s presence in their small congregation.
Doby’s Bridge Presbyterian had its beginning in the fall of 1943 when two deacons of Unity made a visit to the rural community, four miles south of Fort Mill to see if people would be interested in starting a Sunday school. The deacons were Ralph G. Bryant, Jr. and Joe F. Brown. The Rev. J. W. Conyers was the pastor of Unity at that time. On Sunday, December 19th.,1943, at 3:00 p.m., the first Sunday school service was held with an attendance of 39. Mr. Ralph G. Bryant, Jr. was the superintendent. The service was held in a four-room tenant house which was also the birthplace of Dr. Robert G. Lee, a noted Baptist minister and author. A chapel was built on the site of the one-room Massey School and was dedicated on December 14, 1947. The church was organized on February 17, 1952 with 61 charter members. On April 11, 1976 a dedication service was held for a new education/fellowship building, and on November 2, 1986, a dedication service was held for the church’s sanctuary.
Riverview and its sister church, Doby’s Bridge, originally Unity-sponsored mission chapels, officially became churches on February 17, 1952. The first officers of Riverview were T. S. Lesslie, S. W. Smith, and William D. Smith as Elders; and T. H. Baker, H. P. Blackwelder, J. W. Blanton, and Charlie D. Hope as Deacons. Rev. Jamie D. Stinson was called as the first minister.
For more than thirty years in the mid 20th century Unity maintained its own foreign missionary, Martha Little. She was a former Director of Christian Education, and served with distinction as a missionary in Brazil for many years. Also, Cora Wayland, left Fort Mill for missionary service in Korea while her father, Rev. J. E. Wayland was Unity’s pastor (1952-1968). She, too, established an enviable record in the foreign mission field.
A severe hail storm struck Fort Mill in April of 1955 during which chunks of ice as big as a man’s fist fell from the sky. More than 1,000 roofs on Fort Mill homes and other buildings had to be replaced, and an uncounted number of windows were smashed and vehicles damaged. Unity church did not escape.
The heaviest damage was to the large stained glass windows on the west side of the sanctuary. Many of the large panes were broken out and scores of the smaller ones. Members of the Diaconate and the Buildings and Grounds Committee spent months widely searching for glass that would match the color and quality of the ancient windows and eventually, as can be seen today, met with success.
Towards the middle part of the 20th Century there was a large round clock that hung in the center of the back wall of the sanctuary just below the balcony. Regularly seated on the back row under the clock was a rather outspoken senior member who, over time, had become a self-appointed “timekeeper”. If the preacher happened to overshoot the noon hour, and with thoughts beginning to turn from salvation to Sunday dinner, this individual would routinely reach into his coat pocket, pull out a pack of crackers and begin to noisily unwrap the cellophane. This would, in turn, signal the preacher to look up at the clock and wind things down. On these occasions, the “timekeeper” provided a service which was tolerated, if not appreciated, by the congregation.
The next building program took place in 1957 during the pastorate of the Rev. J. E. Wayland with the construction of an education wing to the right rear of and parallel to the right of the sanctuary. This was connected to the 1938 second floor hall of Sunday School rooms that were behind the sanctuary and provided much needed new educational space that would serve the church for over 60 years.
Up through the 1950’s and early 60’s, summer Sunday morning services in the sanctuary were memorable. This was a time before air conditioning. All of the large stained glass windows were fully raised and the morning air filled the room, sometimes accompanied by the flight of an occasional bird or wasp. Small oscillating electric fans were mounted on the walls between the windows, adding to the flow. Hand-held cardboard fans were in the pew racks for those requiring additional “cooling” on warm mornings. Comfort was found in these fans which bore the image of Jesus on one side, and the name of the local funeral home on the other. The open windows also provided some temporary distraction when needed. One could look out over the trees and observe nature, or see who might be running up the hill late.
A sanctuary restoration and refurbishing program came in 1977-78 during the pastorate of Dr. R. E. Watkins, Jr. Among the changes were the remodeling of the entrance, installation of outside entrances to the balcony, enlarging the balcony to twice its original capacity, installation of new chandeliers and carpet, new pews for the balcony, and complete repainting.
The brick outdoor conversation area to the left of the church’s front entrance was designed and built in 1980. It is dedicated to the memory of Melba Cassels Kimbrell.
On August 29th and 30th, 1981, Unity held a Centennial Observance marking the 100th anniversary of the sanctuary. O. T. (Buddy) Culp, Jr., descendant of one of Fort Mill’s pioneer families and an elder, was the chairman of the Centennial Committee.
One of the more interesting and anticipated events revolving around the Centennial Observance was the removal of the 100 year old building’s cornerstone and the opening of the container which was placed there by builders and church members in 1881. The cornerstone was removed with some difficulty on July 8, 1981. Performing the task was Jesse E. Jacobs, Jr., church member and a brick mason by trade. Supervising the operation were committee chairman Buddy Culp, the pastor, Dr. R. E. Watkins, Jr., and others. The cornerstone was opened and revealed the contents that had been placed in it 100 years earlier.
The contents had been placed in a small tin box that was then placed in a cavity that had been chiseled in the top of the stone. While efforts had be made at the time of the cornerstone laying to protect the items stored therein, over the century moisture had seeped through the brick and rusted out the box. Also, water had accumulated and stood in the stone greatly decaying the contents which had been tightly folded to fit into the small space.
The soaked and decayed contents were given to William R. Bradford, Jr., committee member and retired newspaperman, who would make an effort to salvage all items possible and to prepare a display of those that were legible to be shown during the Centennial Celebration of August 29-30, 1981. Bradford dried and separated the tattered sheets of paper and fashioned a display between two large panes of plexiglass which was exhibited at the observance. However, due to the fragile condition of the items, none were returned to the cornerstone.
A list of the contents found in the cornerstone and a statement for posterity along with numerous pictures, facts, and items of the present were placed in a new waterproof copper container and placed in the stone, the cavity of which was enlarged for this purpose. The cornerstone was then resealed and replaced in the pilaster on the left of the front entrance to the Church to be opened and examined by Unity members of some future generation.
Items found in the original cornerstone were:
- A copy of the church roll in 1881 which included all 139 members of the church and children of their families totaling 165 names – mostly illegible.
- A small notebook containing minutes of the meetings of the Building Committee which supervised construction of the sanctuary.
- A copy of the Yorkville Enquirer (newspaper) dated September 1, 1881.
- Three copies of the circular of Fort Mill Academy for the 1880-81 term.
- One copy of The Southern Presbyterian, a denominational newspaper published in Columbia, July 14, 1881.
- A copy of the Charleston News & Courier, September 22, 1881, telling of the assassination of President James A. Garfield and succession to the presidency of Vice-President Chester A. Arthur.
- The following coins: 1880 silver dollar, 1877 quarter, 1877 dime, 1869 nickel, 1874 Indianhead penny, one brass Masonic button.
- The transcription of minutes of meetings of the Building Committee which were held in the Fort Mill Depot. The committee was composed of Samuel E. White, chairman; John M. Spratt, secretary; J. C. Massey, A. R. Banks, L. N. Culp, and W. H. Stewart.
Early in the year it became necessary to replace the entire roof over a portion of the education building. Classrooms and church offices were being heavily damaged by water leaking through the roof. Not only were the walls and ceiling affected, but the timbers supporting the roof had rotted. Repairs were made which both corrected the condition and provided an improved appearance.
With the upcoming 200th anniversary of Unity in 1988, a Centennial Committee was appointed early in 1987 to plan and supervise the observance. The plans included a service to be held in each of the four quarters of the year, each to follow a somewhat different format. A highlight of the year was the March service visit of Dr. Isabel Rogers, Moderator of the General Assembly, who spoke at the morning worship service. It is believed that her visit was the first ever made to Unity Church by the General Assembly’s top official.
At the request of the committee, the Session authorized the writing, preparation, and printing of a history of Unity Presbyterian Church to date. This history would take form in the publication of Legacy, A History Of Unity Presbyterian Church – Its People And Its Progress, researched and written by William R. Bradford, Jr., which would be the first definitive written history of the church. Centennial Committee members were: Paul B. Ellis, Chairman, Wm. R. Bradford, Jr., Joyce Fowler, Sara Gholson, Jeff Kimbrell, Dr. Robert A. Martin, Brenda Stewart, Bob Sullivan, Lib, Sullivan, Linda Weaver, and Jackson Windell. Ex-officio members were Bob Lane, and Bill Love. It proved to be a grand Sunday for Unity with a catered dinner on the front lawn following the service.
The Fort Mill Care Center was created in 1987 by local pastors to consolidate their pantries for the good of the community. Unity played a significant role in this as, for a time in its early years, the Care Center resided in Unity’s manse which was located to the left of the Historic Sanctuary. Now, its permanent home is at 2760 Old Nation Rd., Fort Mill.
While food has always been the main focus, over the past years the Center has been able to provide some funds for utilities and has worked with local dental care providers and pharmacies as well as providing information about housing, jobs, clothing, and other assistance. The Care Center is 100% volunteer, and everything comes from the community including cleaning, maintenance, stocking the pantry as well as funding. Unity has always been, and is, currently involved.
By the mid 1980s and with steady congregational growth, Unity’s 54 year old fellowship hall had become too small and outdated to adequately handle church functions. In 1992 the new and much larger fellowship hall of today was built on what had been lawn beside the original hall. The new hall, over double the size of the old one, with a large and modern kitchen, and new Ladies Parlor would now hold 575 people with some 10,800 square feet of space. The old fellowship hall would now be named Unity Hall.
Habitat for Humanity is a faith based organization with the vision of “a world where everyone has a decent place to live”, and partners with families in the 30-60% of area family income helping them to obtain a home of their own. Habitat also provides home repairs for homeowners in need of assistance to maintain their homes on a cost sharing basis. The York County chapter of Habitat was formed in 1988, and has grown to one of the major chapters in South Carolina.
Unity’s first involvement with Habitat for Humanity began in the late 1990s helping to build two homes on Joe Louis St. in fort Mill’s Paradise community. Since the year 2007, Unity has included Habitat in each year’s Outreach Team Budget and has worked on 17 new homes in York County and 19 home repair projects in the Paradise community of Fort Mill, plus providing financial donations. These efforts have been led by Steve Hardy, who has served as Unity’s Outreach Team contact with Habitat of York County since 2007 coordinating Unity’s workdays and served since 2016 on Habitat’s Board, and by Dave Reimer who currently serves on the Outreach Team and Habitat’s Board. (contributed by Steve Hardy)
Former members Bob (deceased) and Marge Kitterman are models of commitment to Habitat. After retiring from a career in banking, Bob and Marge bought a recreational vehicle and joined Habitat’s “RV Care-A-Vanners” traveling the USA and world building homes. Marge helped coordinate the Care-A-Vanners from Habitat headquarters in Americas, GA, and Bob served on the York County affiliate Board of Directors after the Kittermans moved to Fort Mill. (contributed by Steve Hardy)
With both Fort Mill and Unity experiencing a period of rapid growth, the need was felt for more educational and office space for the church. In 2000, the 1957 educational wing to the right of the sanctuary was demolished and replaced by the much larger multi-story addition that we have today. Also constructed was Unity’s Columbarium beautifully nestled in the small area to the right of today’s Historic Sanctuary.
By the year 2000, under the pastorate of Rev. Dr. R. Dan Holloway, Unity had entered a period of rapid and sustained growth fueled by Fort Mill’s proximity to Charlotte and a highly respected school system. It was increasingly apparent that Unity’s sanctuary would soon be struggling to accommodate its steadily expanding membership. A worship task force was formed to explore a number of options with the conclusion that a new sanctuary was the one preferred, and in 2003 the Sanctuary Feasibility Committee was formed to study related issues. In August, 2005, the committee submitted their final report to the Session indicating that it was time for Unity to move forward with plans for a new sanctuary.
In January, 2006, the Building Committee was formed with Bo Palmer and Steve Hardy elected as Co-Chairs. After much work and visionary planning, the WKWW Architectural Firm of Charlotte was chosen to design the new structure. Significant in the process, it was learned that the family property of Robert Bradford adjacent to the church would become available for purchase which a special gift from two church families made possible.
January, 2008, kicked off with a Capital Campaign led by Co-Chairs Robin Morris and Bill Hood. Pledge packets were distributed to the congregation and on May 18th a Commitment Service was held under a big tent on the Bradford property near the new sanctuary site. By June 1, commitments of $2,575,221 had been received and a congregational vote was called to approve the building project in an amount up to $5,855,000. An overwhelming 93% of the members voted in favor of building the new sanctuary.
Bagpipes rang out as ground was broken on Sunday, May 31, 2009, in a meaningful ceremony. Construction was completed in 14 months, and on Sunday, October 17, 2010, Unity’s pastors led the congregation on a transitional walk from the old to the new sanctuary. The cross, Bibles and hymnals were among items the pastors and members carried with them to be used in the new worship space. On the following Sunday, October 24th, the first full worship service was held in the new sanctuary. Dedication Sunday followed on October 31st, and was a joyous day when various worship items such as the Bible, pulpit, cross, baptismal font, stained glass windows, and the pipe organ were dedicated to the glory of God. Unity’s oldest members, Mary Millikin and Bill Bradford, were among those who participated in this service.
Unity Presbyterian Church opened its doors to the community with an open house on November 14th, and friends from across the town and surrounding areas came to see the new sanctuary and education space and were guided on tours by church members. (contributed by Ruth Boetsch)
For more than a generation of Unity’s children, the large magnolia tree at the foot of the church hill had been a symbol of adventure, a good place for hide-and-seek, a fun place to congregate after church while their parents chatted with other adults, or just a good spot to get away from the outside world. When word came that the old tree would have to go in order to make way for a parking lot for the new sanctuary, the news spread rapidly among the youth who realized that something had to be done. Organizing quickly, they decided to hold a “Save the Magnolia” petition drive at the May 18, 2009, Commitment Service that was held under a tent on the church hill. Having collected many signatures, all were happy to learn a few weeks later that the parking lot plans had been drawn around the tree, and that it would be saved! Due to the concern and action of Unity’s youth, Unity’s beautiful magnolia survived. (contributed by Taylor Bunge)
On Sunday, May 31, 2009, the official groundbreaking ceremony for the new sanctuary took place. Patrick White of the building committee along with the capital campaign committee planned a meaningful service that included a look into Unity’s past, present, and future. Bagpipes played as members of the Mint Hill Scottish Society told of the importance of the founders of our church and their significance in the church’s history. A highlight of the ceremony was the “spreading of dirt” from special places. Families brought dirt from backyard gardens, vacation spots, family home places, and even as far away as a college in Australia! These soil samples, representing the past and present of our congregation, were used in the foundation of the porch as a symbolic gesture of sacrifices that have been made over 220 years to keep the church prospering. (contributed by Ruth Boetsch)
The writing of sanctuary blessings was a highlight of the Capital Campaign. In May, 2010, Unity’s members from youngest to oldest gathered in the Fellowship Hall to write or draw individual prayers, scripture, and blessings on the sub-flooring that would later be installed in the chancel area of the new sanctuary. Among them, it is fitting that the blessing written by Unity’s elder member, Bill Bradford, then 94, who as a young boy woke up every Sunday morning at 4:30 AM to walk up the hill from his home to the historic sanctuary and “fire up the boiler”, now rests underneath the pulpit. Although now hidden from view, members find comfort in knowing that their blessings and those of family members and friends are forever etched in the floors of this sacred space. (contributed by Ruth Boetsch)
Continuing a tradition that began in the historic sanctuary, stained glass windows were included in the new sanctuary to add beauty and enhance the worship experience. Some of the windows feature symbols that lift up the traditional Word of God and the cross of Christ. Others speak to the historic values of the congregation including hospitality, service, love, music, peace and the sharing of our faith. Together, they tell a story of a congregation both steeped in history and committed to the future growth of the church.
The Stained Glass Committee members were: Jeannie Jones and Tom Beaty, co-chairs, and Kimberly Deidrich, Fredda Smith, and Alexa Spratt. After interviewing three companies, Statesville Stained Glass in Statesville, NC, was selected to make the windows.
The windows are of both unique design and composition, and were designed and fabricated using a combination of hand-selected 1/8” opalescent, cathedral and European hand blown leaded stained glass. The ten side sanctuary windows each contain approximately 712 pieces of stained glass, while the two additional windows, the Rose window and the Unity window (in front entry), contain a total of 895 pieces of glass. Altogether, there are over 8,000 pieces of hand-cut glass in the sanctuary. Some 900 hours of labor was involved to create the windows. Yet, the installation itself was performed in less than 16 hours.
With the exception of the Rose window and the Unity window, the 10 side windows were funded primarily by donors. The symbols were chosen by the pastors, with input from the Building Committee and others in the church. It is the hope and prayer of the church that these windows will be a constant reminder of the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (contributed by Ruth Boetsch)
On a bright and sunny afternoon in March, 2010, over 300 of Unity’s youngest to oldest members gathered on the lawn of the church hill to witness the “steeple topping” of Unity’s new sanctuary. Members watched from blankets, chairs, and grass in anticipation as an 1,800 pound copper clad steeple was lifted high in the air by a crane and placed atop the new church sanctuary. Cheers rang out as balloons were released to celebrate this monumental occasion. Dan Holloway, Pastor, commented, “We are truly witnessing history”, and thanked God for His abundant blessings. And, as tears were wiped from many an eye, almost three year old Harper Young, daughter of Grey and Tracy Young, excitedly reported to her grandmother that “the steeple “frew” through the air and landed on top of the church!” (contributed by Ruth Boetsch)
The story begins in February, 2007, when a pipe organ/acoustical committee was appointed by the building committee for the purpose of hiring an organ builder to restore an Aeolian-Skinner organ that Unity had purchased and kept in storage for twelve years with the hopes of eventually restoring it for use in a new sanctuary. The organ was originally built in 1936 for St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Salisbury, NC, and later moved to a church in Greensboro, NC, when it became available for purchase.
Unity’s Pipe Organ Committee members were: Ruth Boetsch, chair; Patsy Black, organist and Minister of Music, Barbara Bowden, Ray Doughty, Kevin Neel, Toni Rush, Spratt White, and David Lowry, consultant.
The Aeolian-Skinner Company built some of the finest organs in the 20th century. The Morman Tabernacle in Salt Lake City, and The National Presbyterian Church in Washington, DC, along with Winthrop University, and Covenant Presbyterian are among other places where their work can be found.
David Lowry, organ consultant, was hired to guide the committee through the selection of an organ builder and serve as a liaison between the new sanctuary’s building committee, architect, contractor and organ builder.
The committee carefully considered whether the existing organ was usable in the new sanctuary. Although it had served its purpose well in the historic sanctuary, the determination was made that it would not provide the support needed for the music program in a larger space.
Thus, the decision was made to contract John Dower of Lincolnton, NC, to restore the stored and potentially more powerful Aeolian-Skinner organ, not only refurbishing the original parts, but also adding stops in the same style to accommodate the larger space in which it would reside. Fortunately, the console (the keydesk where the organist sits) from the historic sanctuary was able to be refurbished and used in the new sanctuary.
Consultant, David Lowry, called Unity’s Aeolian-Skinner organ “a prize of tonal beauty for the new sanctuary which will proudly provide the breadth of tonal colors for the excellent music program that Unity Presbyterian Church maintains.”
On Sunday, May 15, 2011, Unity’s own Kevin Neel was organist for the dedication recital of the newly restored Aeolian-Skinner organ. Kevin was a junior organ performance major at Indiana University Jacobs School of Music, and was a recipient of the “Jacobs Scholar Award”, the highest honor given to an undergraduate in the school. A full house enjoyed listening as the music of Bach, Mendelssohn, Volger, Locklair, and more filled the sanctuary with pieces designed to display the full dynamics and tonal range of Unity’s “new” organ on this historic day. (contributed by Ruth Boetsch)
Though the history of Jews in York County dates back to as early as the 1860s, by 2011 there had been no formal Jewish congregation in the area for fifty years. With Charlotte’s rapid growth and the influx of retired northeastern Jews, the Jewish population of Charlotte and surrounding areas began to grow and in 2010 a Jewish congregation was again created in York County known as Temple Kol Ami.
At this time, the new congregation had no place to meet and approached Unity about hosting a meeting space and on May 1, 2011, Temple Kol Ami contracted with Unity to meet in the Historic Sanctuary. Unity provided this congregation shelter at a critical time in its establishment, and this relationship would continue for two years until Kol Ami found more permanent quarters.
Since 2016, Unity has been sending middle school youth to Asheville, NC to participate in Asheville Youth Mission (AYM). AYM allows youth to participate in a multitude of different volunteer activities over the course of a week such as battered women’s shelters, food banks, homeless and elderly support organizations, and community gardens. Youth participate in faith formation activities in the evenings, including a trip to a local labyrinth for a prayer walk. Trips usually occur once a year in June.
Established by Reverend Lindsay White, Work Camp was a week-long effort in conjunction with a congregation from Pittsburgh, PA to provide high school youth and adults with an opportunity for mission work. These trips usually focused on disaster relief, such as re-roofing a house damaged during the 2018 hurricane season in Oak Island, NC and similar projects near Charleston, SC. The group held nightly worship services to encourage faith formation. The program was discontinued after 2019 due to the pandemic and Rev. White’s call to Cross Roads Presbyterian Church. (both above contributed by Abby Lee)
I found the AYM missions to be a formational moment for my faith. I discovered that I saw God in the faces of those in need, and felt most fulfilled when using my hands, energy and labor to make a difference in their lives and mine. This gave me the opportunity to learn about the world around me as well- I spoke to people who I never would have approached previously and heard their stories about the struggles and triumphs that made them who they were beyond just their situation. Upon returning from each trip, I found myself tired in body but refreshed in spirit, my faith affirmed by being able to do God’s work in the world.
After participating in AYM for my middle school years, Work Camp was a fitting step up in mission work. Our scope of projects was very limited, allowing us to focus closely on getting to know the people we were serving and to see the project through from start to finish. Beyond just the sense of fulfillment from the work, I gained a group of hard and fast friends that I keep in contact with to this day. I felt that because of this opportunity, my faith and conviction grew stronger. (contributed by Abby Lee)
With the 230th anniversary celebration of Unity nearing, the Historic Sanctuary underwent a signifiant refurbishing. This involved deep cleaning throughout the sanctuary, repairing and polishing the chandeliers, and the reconditioning of all woodwork, including pews and pulpit. Also, repair work was done on the organ, the clergy chair was re-upholstered, and the entire sanctuary repainted. At the completion of this process, the sanctuary was pristine, historically elegant in its beauty, and decorated for Christmas – sadly a state whose days would be numbered.
Late on the bitter cold night of December 9, 2018, fire stuck Unity for the third time in its history. The fire started in circuitry leading to a small fan in the bathroom adjacent to Unity Hall (the original 1938 fellowship hall) ultimately engulfing the hall and the entire second story above it. The conflagration and its destruction were enormous with flames from atop the church hill visible from afar. Though Unity Hall and its two-story educational structure would not survive, rapid response and heroic work through the night by the Fort Mill Fire Dept. saved the adjacent Fellowship Hall and, miraculously, the Historic Sanctuary, though it and the Ministries Building would be severely damaged by smoke and water.
The fire had essentially left Unity Hall and its second story educational structure a blackened shell, and, though grateful for its survival, the damage to the recently refurbished Historic Sanctuary was heartbreaking. The task at hand was daunting. Damage assessment, intense and protracted insurance negotiations, and congregational decisions had to be made with regard to the repair and/or future use of spaces lost or damaged. Church Administrative Officer, Jacob, Saylor, became the point person for Unity’s recovery. Uniquely gifted and qualified, he became the chief negotiator with the insurance company, and eventually the on-site supervisor for the repairs and renovations to the Historic Sanctuary, the Ministries Building, and the construction of the courtyard and labyrinth, essentially leading the church through its own “labyrinth” of recovery.
Saved from the flames, yet heavily damaged, there were questions about the structural integrity of the Historic Sanctuary requiring assessment. It was determined that the 138 year old building remained structurally strong. With Church Administrative Officer Jacob Saylor’s leadership, a series of congregational meetings were held to lay out the facts, gather thoughts and input, determine and present options, and to ultimately decide on a future vision for the Historic Sanctuary. Thus, the decision was made for the conversion to the vibrant multi-use space now within the sanctuary’s hallowed brick walls.
If one looks up in the chancel of the Historic Sanctuary, there is a wooden cross in the circular window. This window was initially thought to be fire-damaged beyond repair. The construction project supervisor for the renovation voluntarily took the window home with him and in his workshop (and on his own time) repaired the historic circular framework. Then from the wood of a fire damaged pew, he fashioned a cross which he then mounted in the circular window frame which again overlooks the chancel today. Significance and irony abound here in that from the horrendous fire emerged the cross that now overlooks this new space. (related by Jacob Saylor)
In March of 2020, the Covid-19 outbreak hit the U.S. by storm. Ultimately, the disease would take over one million lives in this country alone. The early weeks and months were chaotic with schools, business, and public gatherings of all sorts in various states of closure and reorganization. Churches were no exception. Newly arrived Senior Minister, Rev. Dr. Matt Rich, and Unity’s leadership faced a mighty challenge and took immediate steps to protect the congregation and staff. In- person worship in the sanctuary was curtailed with services held via zoom and often outdoors on the church hill, even in the cold.
Best procedures and health guidelines were constantly monitored, assessed and adhered to with a team of Unity leaders set up for this purpose, and multiple decisions were continually made on the fly as conditions changed. Gradually, over many months as the pandemic wore on and ultimately wound down, the congregation would return to in-person worship signaling the lessening of this crisis for Unity, Fort Mill, and the entire country. A challenging time, indeed. and well met under Unity’s new pastor.
The Unity Courtyard and Labyrinth are located where the 1938 Unity Hall building which was destroyed by the 2018 fire once stood. After much thought and prayer concerning a use for this space, the Labyrinth and Courtyard were constructed and finished in 2021. This space for prayer and contemplation is open to the congregation as well as the greater Fort Mill Community, and is registered on the “World Wide Labyrinth Locator” website. From the labyrinth you can see all of the buildings on Unity’s campus- 1881, 1938 (partial wall), 1992, 2000, 2010, and 2021. There is also a compass on a seating wall with the latitude and longitude plus the approximate elevation.
It was 10:30 AM on glorious autumn Sunday morning and the house was full when bagpipes rang out and piper Dave McKenzie, followed by Acolytes Victor Ernst and Tradd Estes, processed down the center aisle of Unity’s 2010 Sanctuary. They were followed by Patrick White who was holding aloft Unity’s new Tartan, Judy Terrell who was carrying the Bible, and Unity’s choir of some thirty members. Today’s celebration would be a product of months of planning, all culminating in a joyful service of thanksgiving for Unity’s 235 years of existence and service to God.
The service was led by Unity’s Senior Pastor, Reverend Dr. Matthew A. Rich, with special music prepared by the choir conducted by Margaret Monroe, Director of Music. Patrick White gave an explanation of Unity’s Tartan and all that had gone into its creation, and thanks was given to Unity’s History and Heritage Committee that had planned and worked towards this day.
The day included the baptism of James Murray Ennis, after which a moving sermon entitled “God’s Transforming Story” was delivered by Dr. Rich. Following the service, a delicious lunch of fried chicken was enjoyed by all in the fellowship hall, thus concluding this joyous day of thanksgiving and celebration for Unity’s 235 years.