Tag Archives: Cullman County

Backroads and Byways

Forest at Shady Grove Church

My first memory of the photographs of William Christenberry (1936-2016) is in 1973 in an exhibit at the art gallery in Garland Hall on the University of Alabama campus. I was on campus for freshman orientation and had a couple of free hours one afternoon. It is my first awareness of putting Christenberry’s name with images that seemed immediately familiar somehow.

I have written about Christenberry in the past. He photographed the forgotten byways and captured a disappearing South; his disappearing South has nothing to do with nostalgia or the myths of any “lost cause.” He was drawn to the kudzu-covered landscapes and decaying buildings of primarily rural areas, mostly in Hale County, Alabama, where his “people” came from.

Christenberry’s photographs of places rarely have people in them, so his best-known work has escaped the racial politics which sometimes taints contemporary perceptions of  20th Century Southern photography. (He did have a somewhat obsessive installation called “The Klan Room” on his property, behind locked doors; rarely seen – except in photographs in books – it included objects that the artist collected and created to express his fascination and revulsion with that racist terrorist group.)

As I have begun to wander out a bit more recently, I find myself taking back roads and being attracted to the kinds of places that Christenberry exalted and taught me to better appreciate. These are not sad places. Instead, there is a pride that comes through the decay and a sense-memory inspired by them.

Thorsby, Alabama

A couple of weeks ago, traveling to Harrison Fruit Farms in Chilton County for my first “peach run” of the season, I became acutely aware of places on the side of the road that I have probably passed hundreds of times over the years. A group of abandoned buildings in Thorsby, Alabama, called out to be photographed. Especially appealing are the ruins of the once stately Bank of Thorsby building, dated 1909. It is in the remaining details – the cornices, the lettering in the windows, the date – that the history is revealed and the legacy is sealed.

The town of Thorsby was settled by Scandinavian immigrants in the 19th Century. They were among the first farmers to cultivate the famous Chilton County peaches. The current remains of the town’s business district still face the railroad tracks running alongside U.S. Highway 31. Concordia Cemetery, a peaceful resting place for some of those early Scandinavian settlers, sits on the town’s edge. 

A few days after the peach run, I took my mother on a quick trip to Ryan’s Creek Cemetery in Cullman County to check on her parents’ graves and make sure the flowers placed for Decoration Day on the Saturday of Mother’s Day weekend had survived recent storms. We always drive around and visit sites from Mother’s childhood during these trips. On this day, she wanted to see the Shady Grove Church that I had photographed back in December. She had never been there but had admired the photographs I took several months ago.

The little church is in the Logan community, on the other side of the county from Ryan’s Creek, but we took off down backroads and eventually found our way to the churchyard of Shady Grove Methodist, part of north Alabama’s “Hallelujah Trail” of historic places of worship. Dating from the 1890s, the church is a peaceful and quiet place. During the half hour we were there, not a single car passed on the narrow road that runs between the church and its adjoining cemetery. The church has not held regular services in a hundred years, but it is well-maintained and freshly painted with bud vases and cut flowers in the windows. Paths lead down into the woods in several directions. Visiting there is a tranquil interlude in a frantic world.

These were the kinds of places Christenberry was drawn to several counties away. I think of him whenever I find one. On this Memorial Day, get off the interstate and find a place of contemplation along the backroads, wherever you might be.

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

Unexpected Repose at the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament

IMG_1318   My pick for one of the most unexpected attractions in Alabama is the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament at Our Lady of the Angels Monastery. It’s near the town of Hanceville in Cullman County north of Birmingham. My mother’s family hails from Cullman County and for that reason I tend to think of the area as a Protestant enclave of Scotch-Irish descendants. In reality, though, the town of Cullman was founded by Germans and its German Catholic roots are deep. Indeed, the Cullman skyline is dominated by Sacred Heart Catholic Church; St. Bernard Abbey of Benedictine monks and the Saint Bernard School are prominent in the town. Ave Maria Grotto and its companion “Little Jerusalem” replicas of world religious destinations on the Abbey grounds have long been Cullman’s best-known tourist attraction.

A little farther south of “Cullman town,” past Hanceville, the Shrine is the vision of Mother Angelica, the doctrinaire nun who started Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN), now the largest religious media network in the world, out of a garage in 1981. EWTN is headquartered in Irondale, a Birmingham suburb. I am not now nor have I ever been a Roman Catholic but curiosity and fascination with the scope of the network would drive me to occasionally look in on “Mother Angelica Live,” Mother Angelica’s daily show in the early years of EWTN. Mother Angelica has a certain charm, sharp wit, and charisma and is to be admired for her drive and commitment but sometimes her dogmatic proclamations and venomous rebukes made her sound a bit like a Christopher Durang creation. Still, it is an amazing thing that she started and the network continues to have massive global influence today.

As the network grew and began 24-hour non-stop Catholic programming, Mother Angelica began to search for a place to relocate the monastery away from the bustle of the network. IMG_1279 In 1995, she was able to acquire acreage to build a monastery and small working farm in Cullman County north of Birmingham. Soon, though, her modest plan exploded into a massive vision as she felt divinely called (by a voice emanating from a statue of the Divine Child in Bogota, Colombia) to build a Shrine.

The result is a mind-boggling and somewhat surreal achievement in the rolling hills and valleys of north central Alabama. One exits the interstate and passes through Hanceville and drives past farms and country stores. Eventually, at the turn to the Shrine, there is a long curving drive lined with white fences. There are small guest houses for those making an extended visit to the Shrine.

At the main gate, a sign advises visitors that the grounds are under video surveillance and that armed guards are on the premises (‘kumbaya,” right?). The farmland and pastures come into view and finally the buildings. IMG_1278There are substantial barns and farm buildings, and occasional religious sculptures, and then the main church, chapels, and related buildings are visible in the distance.

Currently there are a substantial working farm; the cloistered monastery for the Poor Clares of Perpetual Adoration; the main church, The Temple of the Divine Child; a Shroud of Turin Display and Lower Church; massive colonnades and Stations of the Cross on either side of the main piazza; a life-size Nativity inside a small chapel; a small castle, Castle San Miguel, containing meeting rooms and the Gift Shop of El Nino; the John Paul II Eucharistic Center; and a replica of the Lourdes Grotto in France along the Mulberry Fork of the Black Warrior River. IMG_1295

It’s a Roman Catholic Disneyland.

And it is truly a magnificent and peaceful place. Standing in the middle of the huge piazza and looking at the large Romanesque-Gothic main church, the bell tower, and the surrounding colonnades inspired by 13th Century Franciscan architecture, one can’t help but be reminded of the great pilgrimage destinations of the world. The marble, limestone, and granite construction, the bronze doors, the gilding throughout, the magnificent statuary inside the various buildings and throughout the grounds, and the German-crafted stained glass windows add to the site’s sense of commitment and purpose, regardless of one’s spiritual stance. IMG_1292

There are regular reminders to “remain silent out of respect for those in prayer” and throughout the place there are opportunities for quiet reflection and meditation. On the occasions when I have visited, there have been vehicles from all over the country in the parking lot and tourists and pilgrims from all over the world but it never seems rushed, noisy, or crowded. IMG_1306

Walking down the path to the river and the replica of the Lourdes Grotto is probably my favorite part of the visit. The imposing rocky structure looms with the marble statues of Our Lady of Lourdes on high and Bernadette kneeling below. IMG_1305Votive candles burn on several levels against the curving back of the structure. The only sounds I heard were the waters of the Mulberry Fork rushing over rocks in the riverbed, birds singing in early spring, and bees busily buzzing among the spring blossoms.

Mother Angelica, who had the vision and doggedly plowed it through to fruition, is almost 92 now and lives in the monastery she envisioned. Reruns of “Mother Angelica Live” still air on EWTN but Mother Angelica is silent. She suffered a severe stroke in 2001 and her speaking ability was greatly impaired. According to her fellow cloistered nuns, she moves her lips in prayer, takes meals in her room, and often watches EWTN when she’s awake. IMG_1311