Joey Varner remembers the stories his grandmother used to tell of walking down to Holly Grove Baptist Church as a little girl and seeing the sanctuary on fire.
He had no idea that he too would live to see a day when the church’s sanctuary was destroyed again, this time by a giant oak tree thrown across it by Hurricane Sally.
“We used to have two big oak trees, one on each side of the church,” Varner said. “They were pretty important — that’s where we had all our outdoor events. We would take tables outside and sit under the trees.”
They cut one of the oaks down a few decades ago, he said.
“The other one is now sitting in the middle of the church. It pretty much centered it.”
And since the storm hit Sept. 17, the church — which is located in the Lyeffion community in Conecuh County — has had to make some decisions. The church, established in the 1890s, has long been a part of the fabric of the area, and of Varner’s life too — he’s been going there since he was a week or two old.
But the church’s heyday was in the ’40s and ’50s, and as the population changed in the decades that followed, so did the church. Before the hurricane, they’d have six people there on Sunday mornings, including interim pastor Hughie Denton and his wife.
“The building was beautiful — the best-looking country church I’ve ever seen,” Varner said.
And Cheryl Womble says it was a loving little community too — she joined the church about a decade ago and says it’s felt like home.
“It’s a very caring group of people,” she said.
‘Broke our hearts’
But in the end, the little church decided rebuilding wasn’t the best decision, and so they decided to disband.
“It broke all of our hearts, but we’re so few in number that we can’t see a good reason to build it back,” Womble said.
“It had a great impact and we sure hate that it ended like it did, but it doesn’t make sense for us to build another one,” he said. “Holly Grove has definitely been a big part of the community, and I can’t tell you how many people I have heard express their sorrow about the church, even in surrounding counties.”
But the legacy of Holly Grove Baptist will live on, and part of that will be in other churches, Varner said. As they’ve gone through the church, they’ve taken supplies like tables, hymnals and offering plates that could be salvaged and given them to other congregations in the area.
“We’ve had other churches offer to help us clean up and even rebuild, but we’ve prayed, and we don’t feel like that’s what we’re supposed to do,” he said. “It’s sad. But we feel like God’s hand is in this, and we trust Him.”