The story of The Episcopal Church of the Redeemer and its role in Greensboro, the seat of Greene County, is one that tracks closely with the history of the South. The church was formed after the Civil War, grew, and then declined with the ravages of the boll weevil and the Great Depression. Persistence and faith kept the small church alive for decades until the creation of a thriving resort, retirement, and tourism economy marked the beginning of a new life for this growing parish.
Greene County, the 11th county in Georgia to be organized, was created by the General Assembly on February 3, 1786. Both the county and the county seat, Greensboro (spelled Greenesborough at the time) were named after the Revolutionary War hero, Nathanael Greene. In subsequent years, parts of Greene County were included in five other counties: Hancock, Oconee, Oglethorpe, Taliaferro, and Clarke.
As an early frontier county, Greene was subject to the periodic conflict that took place between settlers and Native Americans. The new town of Greenesborough was burned by Native Americans in 1787 but quickly recovered and was incorporated in 1803.
The war years of the 1860s were difficult for Greene County, and many of its citizens were killed in the conflict between the North and the South. The first members of Redeemer included several churchwomen who had fled from Charleston and Savannah during the Civil War. Some of the first families were named Clayton, Townsend, Torbert, Geissler, Wilson, Jones, Knowles, Robinson, Parks, and Lewis. The Right Reverend Stephen Elliott, the first Bishop of Georgia, met with the group on September 21, 1863, for the first parish communion in the family home of Mrs. Philip Clayton. (Mr. Clayton had the distinction of serving as Assistant Secretary of the Treasury during the administration of President Buchanan, and he held the same position in the government of the Confederate States of America. After the war, he was considered a person of great integrity and served as United States Ambassador to Peru.)
The congregation continued to meet in homes until it finally rented the Town Hall to accommodate its growing numbers. As the congregation grew, a building fund was started under the guidance of the Reverend Stephen Elliott. Miss Gilby, an English governess for the children of Mr. and Mrs. Phillip Poullain, contributed $100.00 for the purchase of the lot. Mrs. Poullain was the former Catherine Potter of Savannah and a member of the church. There were a number of children in the family and she and Miss Gilby wanted a church for them. The money was contributed by various members here and from as far away as Washington, D.C. The Reverend Stephen Elliott, a nephew of Bishop Elliott, was the first rector.
On February 9, 1867, the wardens of the church purchased a lot for $100 from Mr. Holcomb G. Harper, Mrs. Clayton’s father. They hired J. G. Barnwell of Rome, Georgia, as builder and architect. He lived with Dr. Thomas N. Poullain while building the church.
The building was completed in four months and was consecrated on June 14, 1868, by the Right Reverend John Beckwith, Bishop of Georgia. The first rector to celebrate in the new church was the beloved and influential Father Joshua Knowles, a resident of the town. He served for nineteen years and, at his request, he is buried with his wife by the side of the church in an area now known as “The Knowles.”
In 1987 the church was entered in the National Register of Historic Places, and in 1989 and 1990 the aging building was restored. The original red color was uncovered and faithfully reproduced. (Analysis showed the barn-red color was achieved by a mix of buttermilk and ox blood.) The church was returned to its 1868 appearance.
The church design is Carpenter Gothic, featuring the unusual curved roof and intricate beam-work of that style. To achieve the vertical emphasis of the Gothic style, the distinctive “board and batten” construction technique was used. Diamond-shaped panes in the rectangular windows also draw the eye upward. The window behind the altar – with its intricately-mullioned handmade stained glass – is embedded in a Gothic arch. The bell tower, added only a few years after the church was finished, features a large round window with an intricate window pane design. The original oil chandeliers remain in place, now wired for electricity.
The congregation declined in numbers during the twentieth century, but the church never closed its doors. It is the oldest continuously-worshipping community among all of the many churches in Greene County. Although a small number of churches are older, services at The Episcopal Church of the Redeemer have never ceased.
By the late 1970s membership had dwindled to only three or four families. In the 1980s and early 1990s, with few members and little money, Mrs. Cynthia Curtis, Lucy Ogletree’s mother, provided great emotional and financial support to Redeemer. The Curtis foundation continues to provide financial support to The Episcopal Church of the Redeemer.
With the creation of Lake Oconee in 1980 and the rapid growth in golf and retirement lake communities, membership began to increase. The Rev. John Via came to the church in the early 1990s and stayed until his retirement in February of 2003. He served The Episcopal Church of the Redeemer and The Church of the Mediator in Washington, which were yoked parishes. During this period of time the membership grew, and the church’s outreach program made significant contributions to the surrounding communities. For many years yoked with other parishes, in 2003 the wardens of the church determined that it had grown sufficiently to call the first full-time rector in nearly twenty years.
The church building has been lovingly cared for over the years, and an extensive renovation was completed in 1990. The National Historic Register restored recognition in 1990. The adjacent two-story building, that in part houses the Activities Center, was a gift from Citizens Union Bank (now Bank South) in 1998. This gift was obtained with the dedicated help of Mrs. Carolyn Reynolds Parker. The addition to this building of a modern kitchen facility in1999, and further refurbishing in 2002, make the Activity Center ideal for church coffee hours, special dinners, meetings, and special events.
The church seats approximately 80 people, and now has a membership in excess of 160. It holds two Sunday services to accommodate that growth.
Some of the history information was organized by the Rev. D. Geoffrey Taylor, and some additional history information was supplied by Mrs. Henry T. Lewis (through her son Mr. Junius Lewis), and Mrs. Sarah Robinson Fortson.