‘Our history has been robbed’

Published 12:59 pm Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Staff Writer

A state agency and members of a Washington church are seeking clues to help them solve a mystery: What happened to a marker that denotes the history of the first Roman Catholic church in North Carolina.
The church was consecrated in Washington in 1829.
The marker, erected by the N.C. Department of Cultural Resources and Department of Transportation, stood near the corner of Bridge and West Third Street until it was apparently removed during demolition of an old Dr Pepper bottling plant by a group of local developers.
“Our history has been robbed,” said John A. Mallette, a member of Mother of Mercy Catholic Church in Washington, whose members are investigating the disappearance.
Dana Lawson, church-office administrator, agreed.
“We’re quite proud of our history and by all means, we do want it back,” she said. “But nobody seems to know where the sign is.”
The marker’s text reads: “St. John the Evangelist Church, The first Roman Catholic church in North Carolina. Consecrated, 1829. Burned by Federal troops, 1864. Stood one block east.”
It was erected to highlight the history of St. John the Evangelist Church, consecrated on March 25, 1829, by John England, the bishop of the Diocese of Charleston, on land on the southeast corner of Third and Van Norden streets. Services were first held in the church in 1828, and it continued to serve the local Catholic population until April 1864, when it was burned, along with much of Washington, by evacuating Union troops. The fire also caused much damage to grave markers in the Catholic cemetery. For more than 60 years after the church burned, the town had no Catholic church and worship was conducted in private homes. Today, the church’s original site is home to First United Methodist Church of Washington, according to an essay, provided by the N.C. Office of Archives and History, accompanying a description of the marker.
The office was notified that the marker was missing by Washington resident Sabin Leach, who was concerned with its whereabouts, said Michael Hill, research supervisor for the office.
Hill, who oversaw the original placement of the marker, said he is “particularly grieved” by its loss, adding he hoped that someone with knowledge of its location would come forward.
Leach, in an interview Thursday with the Daily News, said he noticed that the sign was missing one day while stopped at a stoplight on Third Street. In addition to alerting the Office of Archives and History, he also contacted Mother of Mercy Catholic Church so its parishioners would know the sign is missing.
“I was always impressed that our little town had the first Catholic church in North Carolina,” he said. “And obviously the state thought so, too, because they don’t erect these markers for just anyone or anything.
“It’s a bad situation,” he said of the missing sign. “Everybody in town would like to have the sign back up.”
The marker was in place before demolition work began at the bottling plant site some four years ago to make way for construction of the Washington Center project — a mix of commercial and residential buildings, according to Jack Ulrichs, one of the project’s developers.
“I really don’t know what happened to it,” Ulrichs said in an interview earlier this week.
He speculated the marker was removed by one of the subcontractors on the project.
The project has yet to be built.
Hill said that, typically, developers will contact DOT to remove markers that are in danger of damage from construction projects. But, he said, neither DOT nor the City of Washington have any knowledge of the whereabouts of the missing marker.
The silver-and-black St. John the Evangelist historical marker is one of some 50 that stand along state and federal highways in Beaufort County denoting historic sites — among them, Colonial Bath, the First Post Road and Trinity Church — and famous residents — among them, John Gray Blount, Josephus Daniels, the DeMille family, John Garzia and Lindsay C. Warren.
They are part of a program established 75 years ago by the N.C. General Assembly in an effort to standardize the practice of marking sites of statewide historical significance. The first one was put in place in Granville County on Jan. 10, 1936.
To date, more than 1,400 state markers have been erected, and at least one stands in every county in the state, according to the Office of Archives and History. The signs stand on the public right of way.
Between 10 and 15 new historical markers are erected each year, and about 20 markers are replaced — either because of damage, loss or the effects of age, at a cost of $1,425 each, Hill said. Markers that sustain limited damage can sometimes be repaired at about half the cost of a new one, if the plate containing the text is intact, he said.
Often, developers will reimburse the state for the cost of replacing damaged markers, Hill said.
The St. John the Evangelist Church marker has been added to a list of markers to be replaced during the 2010-2011 fiscal year and, hopefully, it could be in place by next spring, Hill said.
He hopes the original marker can be found before then.