Mattie Brown has been gone two years now. That hardly seems possible to those who knew her, though she was 107 when she passed, the oldest resident of Centreville.
Every Sunday right up to the time she died, she'd plop down in her special seat, just right of the pulpit, at Cub Run Primitive Baptist Church. She was a forward-thinking woman -- a likely explanation for why she lived so long -- and one day about five years ago, she looked up into the round face of Pastor Lorenzo Vaughan and announced that it was high time that the old church, built in 1825, got indoor plumbing.
"All we have is that old privy out there," she told the pastor. "Nowadays isn't like when I came along. If we had to go to the bathroom, we would bend over a young tree and sit down. People now are too proud to sit down on a young tree or use that old privy."
She wasn't thinking of herself, mind you. She'd noticed that the church, set back in a grove of towering oaks on Compton Road, wasn't attracting new members. Restrooms would be a magnet, she figured.
Vaughan promised he would get it done before she died, but couldn't. The church still has no restrooms, but Vaughan, 72, and his wife of 46 years, Martha, 79, are still intent on following through.
Martha Vaughan, like her friend Mattie Brown, is part of Northern Virginia history. She grew up in a log cabin in the woods in an area called Gatepost, attending a two-room school for black children. Her grandfather, a farmer, built the cabin, and her father worked in the nearby quarry.
"They came up the hard way," she said.
Cub Run Primitive Church was the spiritual and social center of family life. Each Sunday, Vaughan, her parents and her siblings walked the mile and a half to church and spent the day. "I grew up in that church," Vaughan said. "It is the only church I know."
She and Lorenzo sat in the cold church as she spoke of her youth. There's an old wood stove to one side and an old oil heater on the other -- the building's only sources of heat. Both are unlit.
The log cabin and schoolhouse are long gone. The church's heyday was back when Vaughan was growing up and into her young adulthood. Over the years, attendance has slowly dwindled as members have gotten older and died or moved away.
"Gatepost was not much more than a wide place in the road," recalled Del. Harry J. Parrish (R-Manassas), a lifelong friend of the Vaughans. Parrish's father had a farm in the area and at one time employed both Martha's father and her uncle. "The area was a little settlement of African Americans," he said. "But it is all gone. Once they got water lines out to that part of the county [Fairfax], the whole area grew dramatically."
While decades of development have erased Gatepost and most everything else of the community the women grew up in, the church remains, though it's showing its age. The Vaughans have raised enough money to install new white siding, replace the windows and tear up three layers of flooring.
"And we don't owe anyone a dime," Lorenzo Vaughan said proudly.
When he fires up the wood stove and oil burner each Sunday, sometimes there are 10 people in the pews and sometimes there are 100 -- a full house. Most are elderly and not well off.
On the front of the pulpit is a poster, put up before Mattie Brown died, reminding everyone of the promise: "Repair Mother Church for Sister Mattie Brown. She would like to see 2 bathrooms in this church before she leaves this world."
Lorenzo Vaughan estimates it will cost $80,000 for an addition with two restrooms, a small office and a heating system for the church. A septic field also is needed.
Thus far, church members have raised a few thousand dollars.
John Marshall, owner of Land Design Consultants Inc. in Manassas, has donated his time and expertise to the project for the last four years. He's the architect and engineer and has helped the Vaughans negotiate the permit and zoning process.
"It is kind of our way to put something back into the community, kind of continue the spirit of Christmas all year long," he said.
The project, though small, is a bureaucratic headache because the church predates zoning regulations. "We have an appreciation of the history of a church like that," Marshall said, "but in terms of our industry, no one wants to deal with it because it is too much out of the box."
It took some time, but now the addition is legal.
"We got everything approved. Now all they are waiting for is the funding," he said.
Where will the money come from?
Lorenzo Vaughan removed his glasses and glanced heavenward, toward the paint peeling off the ceiling of his church.
"If it is God's will, like it has been His will for us to put these windows and everything in here, it will be done. And I hope the Lord will let me see it be done. Mattie wanted to see it done, but she didn't. I hope the Lord allows me to see it."
Vaughan worked for Washington Gas Light Co. for 37 years before being laid off on Christmas Eve 1984. "I prayed for four months," he said, and one day "the Lord came in my room and told me to go preach His thoughts. I told Him I was not a preacher. He told me to just open my mouth and He would speak through me."
Vaughan was ordained in 1986 and succeeded his father-in-law as pastor in 1988. Not long after that, Mattie Brown asked him to put in a new floor. Then the windows. And, lastly, indoor plumbing.
A church fundraiser last summer paid for site preparation and pipes running from a newly dug well to where the restrooms would be. Now Vaughan is waiting for further guidance from above as to how to get the rest of the money.
The only deadline for the project is the time the Vaughans have left on earth.
"They give . . . patience a whole new meaning," Marshall said.
Martha couldn't help but smile when asked how Mattie would have reacted to having her dream made real.
"Oh, she would probably jump up and shout if she could," Martha said. "She would do it. She had her whole heart and body in this church."