Esther Johnson is the only member of St. James United Church of Christ in Lovettsville who remembers going to services in the brick church that was torn down in 1901. She was 4, and her strongest memory is that the men sat on one side and the women on the other.
Today, at 87, the spritely, gracious woman is the oldest parishioner of one of the oldest churches in Loudoun County, and last Sunday she helped the St. James congregation celebrate its 250th anniversary.
Founded in 1733 by German settlers from Pennsylvania, St. James and the tiny town of Lovettsville in the northwest corner of Loudoun County were one and the same for many years. And although the congregation, originally Evengelical Reformed until that church was consolidated into the UCC, has moved to new buildings and a new site through the years, there are still many members who share their names and ancestry with those first early settlers.
"When we were little we thought the German settlement, that's what we called Lovettsville, belonged to the Wenners and the Georges," said Johnson, a member of the George family. "Almost everyone is related to everyone else. You can't get away with saying anything against anyone."
Sue Ann Boothe, a young woman who had written on her name tag "Winnie's granddaughter," agreed with Johnson.
"I think I'm related to everyone here," said Boothe. "We're related," she said, turning to Johnson. "Cousins, isn't it? Back a few generations?"
For Alyce Wenner Wilson, back a few generations means tracing her line to great-great-grandfather Elder William Wenner, founder of St. James. "I still have my grandfather's farm," said Wilson. "It's 137 acres right outside of town, big enough for me and my son's family. We're going to be moving back to it in a few years."
Last Sunday's picnic and celebration was a chance for the approximately 80 families of St. James to get together to talk about those earlier days, when children were driven in carriages to Sunday school and when young women looked forward to church so they could visit with friends.
"We came to church for everything. In the country it was the only place to see people," said Dorothy Souder Beatty, reminiscing with Wilson over plates of raspberry cake and chocolate pie.
They talked about Christmas pageants, who played the organ and the days when St. James sponsored community-wide Thanksgiving dinners.
"It was work, remember?" said Wilson. "It wasn't like today when the kids bring one pie. We made seven usually, and often brought as many as five chickens."
Fred Lee George, whose wife Hypatia is descended from the Lutheran settlers who came to Lovettsville after the German Evangelical Reformed settlers were established, said he remembers the hitching yard where the coach drivers waited, but doesn't remember looking forward to church. "It wasn't a social time for me," said George. "I was a boy and I wanted to be out carrying on."
Like any family with a long history, St. James' past is not one of total harmony, and many of the most carefully preserved memories are those of how deeply the church was split by the Civil War.
"My mother . . . remembers Union soldiers being fed all day long in the kitchen of her home," said Johnson, a descendant of a family that sympathized with the Union cause.
Wilson, from a different tradition, remembers her grandfather telling her how he watched Union soldiers burn the family barn.
He was 4, said Wilson, and stood on the porch of his home as the barn went up in smoke.
There are other church families, notably the Potterfields, that supported the south during the war, but the church itself was used as a Union army hospital and the majority of the members were Union sympathizers.
Although it has been many years since the last civil war generation passed on, the north-south division surfaced briefly as the pastor opened a time capsule set in the church cornerstone in 1901.
"Maybe there's money in the box," said one hopeful parishioner. "Maybe $100,000, wouldn't that be great," said another.
There was a silence, then a third member spoke up. "If it's money, it's probably $100,000 in Confederate bills." The crowd laughed.
The time capsule, corroded by weather and time, contained old newspapers, a badly damaged poster, a Bible and hymnal and a photograph no one dared uncurl. "It's something of a disappointment," said Pastor Roland England. "We thought there might be something more dramatic in there."
But church members were cheered by the unveiling of a shiny new Virginia Landmarks Commission sign erected just outside the church. It commemorates Elder William Wenner and the church and settlement that grew into the town of Lovettsville.
"It will be something to stir memories and stir devotion for generations to come," said England.