St. James Methodist Episcopal Church, simple and quiet in its symmetrical architecture, is a powerful symbol. Built in 1885 by the sons and daughters of former slaves, the church, though now dilapidated, is a source of pride for the residents of Oriole, Md., a reminder of their roots in one of the oldest black fishing and farm communities on the Eastern Shore.
On a crisp fall weekend last month, several dozen members of the Oriole Historical Society came from as far away as New York and New Jersey to meet in Oriole and determine the building's future. The group, formed a year ago, plans to renovate the church and establish it as a memorial to Oriole's first residents.
"If we allow this landmark to disintegrate, a legacy will have been removed," said Sammie Thomas, a District resident who has roots in the town.
Rutherford and Addie Foreman drove from their home in Philadelphia to help plan the revival of St. James. Standing around the dilapidated church, they shook their heads in disgust.
"This church is a part of our heritage, our roots," said Addie Foreman, who grew up in Oriole. "It would be a shame if we let it go."
Many of the people attending the meeting were like the Foremans. They moved to large cities in search of jobs as the decline in the water industry made survival difficult in Oriole and other parts of the Eastern Shore. Those who stayed behind are mostly elderly and in no financial position to restore the 105-year-old church.
St. James has not been in use since 1970, when members of its congregation, too small in number to support it, moved on to neighboring churches.
The church today is in sad shape, having fallen victim to vandals who carted off brilliant colored tri-paneled Gothic window panes and the handmade maple benches that skilled carpenters carved their individual designs into more than 100 years ago.
The roof caved in after years of punishment from the dreaded "nor'easters" that blow fierce, heavy rain from the north across the Eastern Shore.
In the woods surrounding the church, gravestones dating back a century or more are scattered about. Thomas speculates that many were stolen for use as concrete foundations in residential garages.
Still, the tall linear planks that shape the church -- in keeping with a Methodist belief that an orderly, neat way leads to salvation -- remain untouched. St. James has aged with dignity.
"The detailed craftsmanship of this church reflects the great pride the African-American community of Oriole felt for their church and environs," Thomas said.
Ellene Bradshaw, business manager of the Oriole historical society, estimates it will cost at least $25,000 to bring the church back to life. So far, the organization has received $6,000 in pledges.
Bradshaw does not live in Oriole but in Nanticoke, a town in neighboring Wicomico County. Yet, memories of her late aunt who attended St. James and of others who moved away but sent money back to support the church inspired her to join in its revitalization.
"My aunt would tell me about how Sunday was church day and everyone looked forward to it, it was a big day," Bradshaw said. "This was my greatest desire . . . to rebuild this church as a memorial to the people of Oriole, especially to her."
One hundred years ago, St. James was at the heart of a bustling town made up of former slaves who earned their living as farmers and oystermen. As they formed their own churches, many chose to become Methodists out of loyalty to Methodist slave owners who, at the time of their deaths, often freed their slaves.
Although Oriole now has a population of just under 100, the church at its peak had more than 100 members who contributed dues of 50 cents to $1 each Sunday, according to church archives. Baptisms took place down the road at the Monie River, a tributary of the Chesapeake Bay.
Thomas became interested in the history of the church and his family as a young child growing up with his great-grandmother in Oriole. He vividly recalls how strongly religion played a part in the lives of the townspeople.
Even now, Thomas, who works for the District government, spends his spare time poring over census records and tracing the ancestry of Oriole residents. He has traced the bloodline of nearly all Oriole residents to one woman, Leah Shelton, considered the matriarch and heroine of the town.
Born in the late 1700s, Shelton was an anomaly of that era. A free black woman who owned property, she survived a period in which other freed blacks were often recaptured and placed back in slavery. The church, the gravestones and the renewed interest in things of the past are, in many ways, Oriole's tribute to her.
The recent meeting of the historical society ended on a Sunday evening with an old-fashioned church revival and dinner at nearby Grace United Methodist Church.
The powerful sermon of a visiting preacher still ringing in the ears, a soloist stood to sing. Her voice, deep and strong, belted out the first verse, and the audience, chimed in.
"When I see Jesus," she sang.
"When I see Jesus," the audience answered.
Thomas said this is the "call and holler" musical technique born in small Southern churches and chain gangs and rarely heard in the churches of large cities.
The soloist, in tears and her voice hoarse, continued to sing. The audience, on its feet, urged her on.
"You see, this is what we're trying to preserve," Thomas said. "One of the things about the black religious culture is that it is something you live -- not just something to hang on the wall."