By Maury York
Led by energetic clergy and laymen during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Episcopalians did much to promote Christianity and education in Louisburg.
Their labors resulted in the establishment of St. Matthias' Chapel and a robust school for African American children.
Much of the credit should be given to the Right Rev. Henry Beard Delany, who from 1889 until 1904, served the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina as a member of the Commission for Work among Colored People.
Beginning in December 1892, Delany visited the sick and aged in Louisburg, and the next year he began holding monthly services in the Franklin County Courthouse. His efforts led a number of local residents to seek confirmation in the church.
According to the 1893 report of the diocese, a lot had been acquired for erection of a church and construction was underway. Despite the financial hardship caused by the Panic of 1893, perhaps the most serious depression the United States had experienced to date, the building was completed the following year.
Delany conducted the first service at St. Matthias' Chapel on May 18, 1894. A large crowd filled the building, and many were turned away. Following the service, F.S. Spruill and former legislator John H. Williamson spoke on the growth and future of the church.
Sallie B. Alston and Williamson's daughter, Flora, described the spiritual and educational development of the congregation, which was comprised of some 50 persons.
"Nearly all" of the $2,500 needed to build the structure came from New York, apparently as a result of appeals by John Williamson. Situated directly on the thoroughfare between Louisburg and Raleigh, the church struck the editor of The Franklin Times as "one of the most admirable church buildings in town."
The congregation worked actively to educate local African American children. Led by Sallie B. Alston and John Williamson as early as 1883 - a time when public schools for white and African American children received relatively little support from state and local governments - the Good Shepherd School was flourishing at the time St. Matthias' Chapel opened.
Soon the Rev. James Battle Avirett, rector of St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Louisburg, raised funds for the purchase of a lot and construction of a building for the school.
Located approximately 400 yards south of the church on a site formerly used as a pasture, the school opened in 1896 with three teachers.
Parents soon lost confidence in the school, however, until George C. Pollard took charge of it. First using St. Matthias' Chapel as the school, he eventually convinced the community to embrace the school building.
During the 1911-1912 school year, more than 160 students enrolled in St. Matthias' School, as it was now known.
Ten of the students walked an average of eight miles a day to attend the school.
By August of 1912, officials sought funds to build a badly needed addition to the structure, but apparently decided to build a new school. According to the 1915 report of the Diocese of North Carolina, work on the new school, being constructed at a cost of $1,500 to accommodate 200 students, was well underway.
By 1919, St. Matthias' School was considered the largest parish school in the diocese.
The school no longer exists, but an active congregation continues to meet in the church, now known as St. Matthias' Episcopal Church, on South Main Street in Louisburg.
Published in The Franklin Times on October 17, 2013.
Maury York is director of the Tar River Center for History and Culture at Louisburg College.
Photograph of the Right Rev. Henry Beard Delany, ca. 1918, courtesy of the The Archives of the Episcopal Church.
The author wishes to thank Adair Werner and Lynn R. Hoke, project archivist, Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina, for their research assistance.