Tag Archives: Baldwin County Alabama

Roadside Attraction: Malbis Memorial Church

Malbis Memorial Church

Traveling through Baldwin County’s Eastern Shore near Daphne, be sure to find your way to AL Hwy 181 and the Malbis Memorial Church, a place of worship and devotion that is also a monument to the power and industry of immigrant culture.

Jason Malbis (born Iason Antonios Markopoulos in Doumena, Greece, in 1869) spent his early life in a Greek Orthodox monastery. He immigrated to the United States in the early twentieth century. After travels around the country, he settled in Mobile and worked mostly in the food industry. Malbis and a fellow immigrant, William Papageorge, bought 120 acres of land across Mobile Bay and started a self-sufficient plantation that became a successful colony for Greek immigrants. Malbis Plantation continued to grow in the coastal countryside and Malbis himself remained active in civic endeavors in Mobile. The colony’s popular Malbis Bakery became a mainstay in downtown Mobile.

Jason Malbis was in Greece on family business when the United States entered World War II and he was subsequently unable to return to his home in Baldwin County. He died in Greece in 1942. Prior to his death, he expressed his wish for his body to be returned to Malbis Plantation and for a church to be built there.

The Sacred Patriarchal and Stavropegial Monastery of the Presentation of Theotokos – better known as Malbis Memorial Church – was dedicated in 1965. Once surrounded by the plantation’s farmland, the impressive church now sits quietly at a busy intersection, the historic buildings and remaining property of the plantation threatened by residential and commercial properties close by.

photo (2016) by Carmen K. Sisson

The church boasts an impressive Byzantine Revival exterior, with domes, arches, arcades, pediments, and mosaics representing Christian icons. But the real splendor happens once you enter the building. Beyond the vestibule, two rows of Corinthian columns in red marble support a brilliant blue arched ceiling in the nave. White marble is used extensively in the apse, which is crowned by a full dome with a rendering of Christ floating above at the very top. It seems that every inch of the space is covered with paintings, stained glass, murals, mosaics, and carvings. It is an unexpected find in an unlikely location – a place of intense devotion and meditation.

Each time I go there, I find it hard to fully believe the level of profound magnificence in a relatively small house of worship.

A quiet cemetery is just to the south of the church, among the live oaks. It is the resting place for many of the Greeks who made a home at Malbis plantation. Back inside the church, the remains of Jason Malbis are interred in a crypt. Home at last.

Christmas Card 2020: Looking Forward

Sacred Heart Chapel; Mobile Bay, Alabama

A holiday ritual that wasn’t curtailed this year was the sending of Christmas cards. Professional Southerner posts in previous years have detailed my annual search for historic and/or picturesque churches to be found around Alabama during the December holiday season. One of these structures usually is featured on the next year’s Christmas greeting.

This year’s church, Sacred Heart Chapel, overlooking Mobile Bay from Baldwin County’s Eastern Shore, is a church that dates from the 1880s.  I’ve photographed the chapel many times over the years. Until 2019, none of my images struck my fancy as being Christmas card-worthy, although the building is a lovely example of 19th Century Southern coastal architecture. Its large front porch is a particularly charming feature.

The chapel is only used for summer services. A year ago, walking along the deserted grounds, I was struck by the simple grace of the Gothic windows against the white planks of the building. Beyond the porch, the broad churchyard sweeps down to a vista across Mobile Bay, interrupted only by the ruins of an old pier from a previous hurricane.

Even before the pandemic, I had decided that the side view of Sacred Heart would be the 2020 Christmas card image. There was something hopeful in that outward view. Comes the pandemic, and I was firm in my conviction that whatever hope I saw in that particular image would be part of a holiday message this year.

The main message inside the card includes the message “Looking Forward to Christmas and the Year to Come.” And, as always, “Peace on Earth.”

The search for an image for the 2021 Christmas card is more abbreviated this year since I was not able to travel the length of the state to photograph churches and other scenes of December.

Among the tourism trails of north Alabama is the North Alabama Hallelujah Trail (www.northalabama.org/trails/hallelujah) featuring thirty-two places of worship that are at least 100 years old and stand on their original sites. Many of these are examples of vernacular Southern church architecture, others are Gothic or grander, one is a synagogue, and one is simply an open-air facility with cedar posts and a roof.

My mother’s family is from Cullman County, Alabama, — the descendants of Scotch-Irish immigrants who landed in Virginia and the Carolinas in the late 18th-early 19th century and settled in the frontier of Alabama soon afterward. My annual Christmas cards have featured churches from all over Alabama but I never located one in Cullman county that called out to be used. Family-related churches in Cullman around the communities of Kinney Grove, Ryan’s Creek, and Bethany – some of which were built by some of those ancestors – have been replaced by more prosaic modern buildings that don’t make the Christmas card cut.

Shady Grove Church; Cullman County, Alabama

The Hallelujah Trail features a church in the Cullman County community of Logan. A couple of weeks ago, I had the perfect opportunity to travel down to see it in person. Much of Cullman County is off-the-beaten-path and Logan seems even more remote than most. It’s beautiful hilly country with plenty of farms, pine thickets, and ponds along the narrow roads.

At the end of one particular road is Shady Grove Church, which started out in the 19th Century as pews in an arbor. The current building dates to the late 1800s. It’s a serene place on a lonely road, surrounded by the quiet of pristine forests. Across the road from the church is an old cemetery which holds generations of locals along with the remains of soldiers from both the Union and Confederate armies.

Shady Grove Church interior; Cullman County, Alabama

The doors to the building were locked but, through a window in the front door, the entirety of the church interior is visible. A unique touch, a hand-carved church structure, decorates the arched cove behind the pulpit. A wooden outhouse provides necessary services behind the building. Somebody had made the effort to install fresh flowers in small vessels in each window; it’s a small touch – but one that speaks to the dedication that keeps Shady Grove Church a place worthy of a remote road trip.

In activist/poet/writer Katha Pollitt’s “Plague Poem,” she muses, “Perhaps it is best that we go away now” as she considers ongoing environmental and social sins. It’s an interesting thought, but this Christmastime, I choose to hope for the best and for an opportunity to right the wrongs that plague us when we get to the end of this current spate of unfortunate circumstances.

Merry Christmas … And all hope for an amazing and triumphant New Year.

Shady Grove Church window; Cullman County, Alabama

Satsumas for the New Year


DSCN0046 Few food-related experiences please me more than buying a bag of just-picked satsumas off the back of a pick-up truck on the edge of a pecan orchard in Baldwin County on Christmas week.

Some of the most distinctive icons of nature in the American South – magnolias, camellias, and azaleas come to mind – came over from Asia. Satsuma oranges have Asian origins too and are a part of the mandarin orange family. Mobile and Baldwin Counties on the Alabama Gulf Coast are part of a Southern “Satsuma Belt” that stretches from Texas to Florida and there is pretty specific history about how the tasty fruit got its start in Alabama. The Mobile County town of Satsuma gets its evocative name from the fruit. “Satsuma” ranks right up there with “Sipsey” among my favorite Alabama place names.

Satsumas are a medium-sized, mostly seedless, orange citrus with a distinctive skin that easily pulls away from the fruit, making it simple to peel and eat without much mess or trouble. Satsuma season starts in the fall just before the holidays commence. The fruit gets sweeter as the season progresses and its rich sweetness peaks right around the time Christmas comes around.

I always grab a few bags of satsumas when I am in Baldwin County before Christmas. Last year the weather was uncooperative and satsumas were hard to find. In years past, I usually bought my satsumas from a lady whose truck was often parked on the corner of Fairhope Avenue and Church Street in downtown Fairhope. This year there was a good crop and an abundance of stands, pick-up trucks, and signs on the side of the road alerting the public that there were satsumas to be had. The recent deluge of rain may have put a slightly early end to the season, I hear, but three days before Christmas I saw a man with a tent, a parka, and a large umbrella selling baskets of satsumas during a pounding rainstorm (with distant thunder) on a Fairhope side street.

While satsumas are a tasty treat to just peel and eat, I also usually make an ambrosia with satsumas as the citrus component. This year, between frequent visits to the hospital, my mother and I only had time to grab a satsuma in lieu of a meal on a few occasions. Mother would usually pack a couple of satsumas in her bag of provisions before a day spent by my father’s bedside but just as often she would give them away to a nurse or respiratory therapist.

I had to get to Huntsville to take care of some end of month duties at the house and the satsuma rations at Mother’s house in Birmingham were getting low when I left. Fortunately, in Huntsville today, I saw a sign advertising “Mobile County Satsumas” outside a store and dashed in to grab the last two bags they had for the season.

That should get us into a new year, perhaps into an ambrosia, and tide us over for a few days until the next crop of satsumas makes its appearance before Thanksgiving of 2016.

Happy New Year (and, oh yeah, Roll Tide).

Leaving Point Clear: December 2015

DSCN0037 On my last day in Point Clear I was awakened early by a tornado warning. I walked out onto my balcony to watch the storm system move from Mobile over the bay to the Eastern Shore. The wind picked up; the ancient live oaks around the lagoon shook fiercely as a single white ibis took flight from the water, startling white against the dark grey clouds. The storm was clearly moving to the north of me, toward Daphne and Spanish Fort. Most of the worst of the weather system had moved still farther to the north when I pulled away from the resort a few hours later and began to drive toward ominous skies.

I finagled an abbreviated version of my annual pre-Christmas retreat to the Grand Hotel in Point Clear on Mobile Bay this year despite plenty of concern; my calls back and forth to Mother and the hospital were frequent.

DSCN0041It was a shortened stay with welcome warm temperatures (despite the less than ideal weather threat) and I was able to find time to do some of the things that make this annual holiday season visit so essential to my mental well-being. Shortly after arrival on Sunday afternoon it was time to meet a contingent of the Brunson family for afternoon tea in the Grand lobby. The holiday crowd was large and festive. We adjourned from the Grand to Allison and Richard Brunson’s inviting bayside home where their oldest son John had been inspired to make a Chicago-style deep dish pizza which was savory, rich, and delicious and which seemed to exceed everybody’s positive expectations – including John’s and the brothers who assisted him. At least four other pizzas in delicious combinations were baked to accompany John’s masterpiece and we all overindulged – except for family friend Kenneth who sensibly made a salad for himself from unused pizza toppings.

On Monday, time was spent resting and reading, walking around the grounds, and exploring Fairhope and environs in search of fresh satsumas, a juicy citrus that makes its appearance in Baldwin County right around Christmas and may often be found in my New Year’s Day ambrosia. A massage was scheduled for Tuesday and it was a pleasure to catch up with Judy at the front desk; the massage therapist, Claudia; and the wonderful attendants in the quiet room, J.C. and Al. All of them provide a comforting and stress-free escape from the tension beyond the spa’s peaceful walls.

My good friend Kitty from graduate school and, later, from professional theatre gigs, was visiting with her family in Spanish Fort and met me for dinner in Fairhope on my final night. Dragonfly foodbar was the destination as we savored foodsmith Doug Kerr and staff’s always creative concoctions.

On that drizzling final morning before the trip back to Birmingham, I swung by Punta Clara Candy Kitchen to grab the requisite pralines.

St. Francis on the Point church sits across the road from Punta Clara Kitchen and the Wash House restaurant. Leaving Punta Clara, there was a sign in front of the tiny St. Francis chapel that said “CHAPEL OPEN FOR PRAYER.” I have photographed that chapel many times and have used it on my annual Christmas card but the doors have always been locked on those previous visits. I have tried to photograph the interior through the windows in the past so it was a treat this time to be able to go and sit quietly inside.

The warm and peaceful chapel provided meditation, shelter, and comfort from the various storms I faced on the drive home to Birmingham and, later, farther north to Huntsville and my house north of the Tennessee River. I was grateful for all the people who are “lifting us up” as my family faces the day to day of serious illness. “Lifting up” is my friend Judy Prince’s phrase for prayer.

As I compose this, I am sitting once again in my father’s Birmingham hospital room looking across Shades Valley at the foggy but brightly lit visage of Vulcan standing sentry over this valley and downtown Birmingham beyond Red Mountain. I will still be sitting here in a few minutes when midnight comes and it is Christmas Day. Somehow, with Dad sleeping peacefully at the moment, the twinkling lights of Homewood in the distance, and the stained glass windows of a church down below, this seems a good refuge to sit out the remains of a Christmas Eve. I will be here still when the sun of a fresh Christmas morning glimmers over the mountain to the east.

Merry Christmas. May you find comfort and joy with those you love.DSCN0040