St. James Methodist Episcopal Church, simple and quiet, has long been a powerful symbol for the residents of Oriole, Md., population 100.
Built in 1885 by the sons and daughters of former slaves, the weatherbeaten church, its white paint reduced to remnants on its cedar frame, is now a crumbling shadow of its former self.
Closed and in disrepair for more than 20 years, the simple edifice is nevertheless a source of pride in this tiny town in Somerset County, even for folks like Sammie Thomas, who left a decade ago to live and work in the District.
Thomas and other town natives, many scattered in cities up and down the East Coast, say the tiny church is a poignant reminder of their roots in one of the oldest black fishing and farm communities on Maryland's Eastern Shore.
Now several dozen have vowed to renovate it as a memorial to Oriole's first residents.
"If we allow this landmark to disintegrate, a legacy will have been removed," said Thomas, 28, who organized the Oriole Historical Society to raise money for the renovation. So far the society has received $6,000 in pledges. Last week it received a $500 grant from a Baltimore preservation group.
Addie Foreman, a quiet, thoughtful woman in her sixties, grew up in Oriole and now lives with her husband Rutherford in Philadelphia. Last month, they drove to a meeting of the Oriole Historical Society. Standing near the dilapidated church, she shook her head.
"This church is a part of our heritage, our roots," she said. "It would be a shame if we let it go."
Many who grew up in Oriole left for jobs in large cities as the decline in the fishing and oyster industry made survival difficult along the Eastern Shore. Some left, as Thomas did, to attend Howard University and other black colleges.
Those who stayed behind are now mostly elderly and in no financial position to restore the 105-year-old church. St. James was closed in 1970, and its members, too few in number to support it, moved to neighboring churches.
The intervening years of neglect have taken a toll. Vandals carted off the brilliant tri-paneled Gothic window panes and handmade maple benches that skilled town carpenters had carved 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.
And 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 orderliness 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," said Thomas, who makes the six-hour round-trip drive to Oriole at least every other weekend to visit family.
Ellene Bradshaw, business manager of the historical society, estimates it will cost at least $25,000 to bring the one-room church back to life. Plans to build an overhead gallery and install a bathroom, a luxury unheard of when St. James was built, may cost more.
Bradshaw lives 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 restore it inspired her to help.
"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 the centerpiece of Oriole, then a bustling town of former slaves turned farmers and oystermen. As they formed their churches, many chose to become Methodists out of loyalty to Methodist slave owners who, at their deaths, often had freed their slaves.
At its peak in the early 1920s, the church had more than 100 members who contributed 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 St. James as a child while attending the church with his great-grandmother. He recalls how strongly religion played a part in the lives of the townspeople.
Although he now lives in LeDroit Park, immersed in a management fellowship at the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, he still spends his spare time poring over census records and tracing the ancestry of Oriole residents. The bloodline of nearly all Oriole residents, including himself, he said, goes back to one woman: Leah Shelton.
Born in the late 1700s, Shelton was an anomaly of her era. A free black woman who owned land, she managed to survive a period when other free blacks often were recaptured into slavery. The church, the gravestones and the renewed interest in things past are, in many ways, Oriole's tribute to her, Thomas said.
The recent Sunday meeting of the historical society ended with an old-fashioned church revival and dinner at nearby Grace United Methodist Church.
A powerful sermon by a visiting preacher still ringing in her 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 "call and holler" musical technique, born in small Southern churches and chain gangs, is 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."