Six months after a wall collapse left the sanctuary in ruins, the 100-year-old congregation finds itself in a most unlikely season of revival.
Members have found new energy in making plans to rebuild. Former regulars have returned – many for the first time in years – to support a community to which they remain loyal.
And newcomers are showing up on Sunday mornings, filling the chairs in a temporary worship space in the fellowship building. There, the church’s new pastor is preaching about hope and resilience to a flock that doesn’t have to look far for examples.
The Connection at work
For now, what’s left of the historic sanctuary sits protected behind a fence. A gaping hole reveals where the pulpit once stood. It won’t be this way for long. Church leaders are working with the Western North Carolina Conference on a rebuilding effort that will preserve the original character while adapting to modern needs.
The United Methodist Foundation of Western North Carolina collected gifts from people across the Conference to support the rebuilding. This is all part of what it means to be a connectional church.
To tell the story behind Franklinville UMC’s fall and rise, we spoke to people with unique perspectives on the events of the past six months. It’s clear that Franklinville has something to teach us about God’s healing presence and the power of the Connection.
Rev. Michèle Brown Hill
Michèle was in her first week on the job when the collapse occurred. That Sunday, she stood in the local park, leading an outdoor worship service in front of TV news crews, townspeople, and at least eight United Methodist pastors from nearby congregations. For Michèle, whose two-point charge includes Seagrove United Methodist Church, the process of getting settled in her new appointment has been equal parts stressful and inspiring, often at the same time.
Michèle works a shift at the Franklinville Diner on Mondays to see church members and build relationships with the locals. The volunteer role has helped her become a familiar presence around town.
“People are constantly asking me, ‘What’s going on with the church?’ It’s not just the congregation that is invested.
The church from its beginning has always served the community – baptisms, graduations, voting, weddings, funerals, parties, and things like that. The foremost thought is, how can we continue to serve the community, and do it even better?
This is not just about having a beautiful building. It would be worth little if the building were not being used for the glory of God.
The new space will reflect the original intent to be a town central landmark. There will be subtle changes to make it more accessible, particularly for people with physical limitations. Once the sanctuary is complete, the congregation plans to update the fellowship building as well, to allow more ways to meet the needs of the town.”
Rev. Beth Crissman
As District Superintendent of the Uwharrie District, Beth helps to guide church leaders and Conference staff to make the right decisions not just for tomorrow, but for 50 years from now. Beth brings a valuable background to the role, having served as senior pastor of West Market Street UMC in Greensboro and co-founder of a non-profit that trains clergy and laity to act as changemakers in their communities.
“How do we sustain the fervor and energy that has emerged from this? The answer is by telling the story. Franklinville UMC’s future is fueled by its story of new birth. That’s the power of resurrection. It’s so central to our faith because the story has been told over and over. And over time, the Good News spreads into the community.”
Katie married into a family that belongs to Franklinville, but she hadn’t been active in recent years. On the night of the collapse, Katie was sitting on her front porch when she heard what sounded like an explosion. Since then, Katie, her husband, Michael, and their 3-year-old daughter, Ellie Mae, started going to worship and have become cherished among the faithful. Katie wants her daughter to be the first child baptized in the rebuilt sanctuary.
“I feel like our church has come back together. People are on the same page.
Michèle and I set up some tables and coloring books to create a children’s area in a corner of the fellowship hall. I feel like I can bring my 3-year-old and not have it looked down on. People in church say to me, ‘Don’t ever not bring her.’ They realize she is the future.”
Born and raised in Franklinville, Priscilla has sat in the pews for more than 80 years, a distinction that earned her the title of matriarch of the congregation.
Priscilla is among the few folks left who remember Franklinville as a bustling manufacturing town. Randolph Mills (pictured above) operated for a half-century until textiles began moving overseas in the 1970s and 80s.
“I grew up in the church – I’ve never been anywhere else. It was like losing a family member – something that has always been vital in my life.
God placed Michèle Hill in our midst at the perfect time. She is a leader. I know the minister is not the church, but all sheep need a shepherd. She’s gotten out in the community, and people know her face and feel her energy.
I’m not hopeful – I am sure that we are going to go forward.”
On the Saturday after the collapse, Sarah drove to Franklinville from her home near Seagrove, about 30 minutes away. A lifelong United Methodist, Sarah felt called to express support for a group of people she had never met. Six months later, Sarah is still making the same drive. She’s in the process of transferring her membership.
“They welcomed me like I had been there forever. It was just such a warm feeling. Even though they had lost their sanctuary, they were still the body of Christ moving forward. So, I decided to keep going.”
In the aftermath of the collapse, crews managed to save parts of the stained glass windows, the cross on top of the steeple, an old church Bible and the baptismal font. These were blessings. But perhaps the greatest lesson from these last few months is that a church is more than a collection of objects.
As the people of Franklinville sang in a recent gathering hymn: “With Thanksgiving, I’ll be a living sanctuary for you.”
For many years, Caroline has been a friend and supporter of the Foundation, having served on the Board of Directors in an ex-officio capacity while on Conference staff.
In today’s world, financial accountability is probably more important than ever. People want to know their church is keeping track — and doing the best it can — with the gifts they’re giving.
Foundation staff members share selections for a Christmas playlist.