Burns “Belfry” Church Update

Work is continuing to move forward on the former Burns Methodist Church in Oxford.  The

…brick vernacular Gothic Revival church with two asymmetrical front corner towers…(Mississippi Department of Archives & History/Historic Resources Inventory)

was constructed in 1910 on the edge of Freedmen’s Town, an African American neighborhood.  Gerald W. Walton in A History of the Belfry Project (Oxford-Lafayette County Heritage Foundation) indicated the land was deeded to Harrison Stearns, a servant of William Stearns, by Stearns’ widow in 1867.  Harrison Stearns was one of three freedmen serving as an Oxford city alderman in 1870-71.  He in turn gave part of the land to trustees of the Methodist Episcopal Church.  The Burns Methodist Episcopal Church was organized in 1870, and a wooden church building was erected on the site.  By 1910, it was evident the congregation needed a larger and better building.  Community members began fund raising and assisted in construction of the brick building.

A rendering of the completed renovation can be seen here.  A number of interior photographs can be viewed at the Burns-Belfry Museum and Multicultural Center website, which also provides extensive information on the construction phases, funding, and history of the project.

Other details provided by Walton include descriptions of the building amenities

…the new building was built for $3,000…heating was provided by 2 pot-bellied stoves…music by a foot-pedaled organ…lighting by brass kerosene lamps hung on chains from the ceiling.  Electricity was added in 1914.

The west side of the church was for men’s seating, and the east side for women.  The custom of separation of gender still continues in some churches today, for example, the Russian Orthodox.

In 1978, the congregation moved to a larger church building and sold the old church to an attorney.  The Newtons purchased the church from the attorney, saving it from demolition.  They moved the parsonage to their farm where it remains, and “renovated” the building in what Walton calls “…an ill-advised renovation.”  Original stained glass windows were broken, but some of the pews were salvaged and are in the Burns’ current building.

John Grisham was the last owner of the building and deeded it to the Oxford-Lafayette County Historic Foundation, for use by the Oxford Development Association.  ODA is an organization of local African Americans

…to promote and advance the general health, education, welfare and economic development of the poor community through charitable and civic means. 

Renovation of this historic building and preserving it will result in another prime attraction for our area.  Even more important than the attraction of this building for tourists and scholars is its possibility for our citizens to take another forward step in racial reconciliation. (Walton, A History of the Belfry Project)

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Categories: African American History, Churches, Historic Preservation, Oxford, Renovation Projects

6 replies

  1. My wife and I love all the old structures in and around Oxford and I remember seeing the old church many times over 20 years ago as I would go from campus to the square at Ole Miss while I was a student.
    I can’t wait to see it fully restored to its original grandeur.

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  2. Nice post. I spent some time on the local preservation group’s site (they’ve had several great projects– the LQC Lamar House, the Depot, the College Hill country store, and this one), and noted a historical marker I did not know, for Chief Toby Tuby’s burial mound. Unfortunately, the marker has been stolen!

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  3. Yes, I agree, the LQC Lamar House was quite well-done. I would love to see THE University work in conjunction with the preservation and historical groups to bring Rowan Oak back up to its original glory. I know they like to say that it is being kept as it was when Faulkner was alive, but we were there back in August to desposit my son in his freshman dorm and the old house has some rotten boards, sagging shutters, cracking chimneys, etc. All of these neglected repairs will only be held up by the excuse of “keeping it authentic” for so long and then the excuses, as well as the structure, will begin to collapse and that will be a shame.
    I would be willing to be involved in any structural strengthening project that would leave Rowan Oak stronger (bones-wise) and still authentic to W.F’s time.

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  4. The depot restoration in Oxford is quite nice, but very under-used. Here in Hattiesburg, we use the old, beautifully restored train station for every manner of function from prayer-breakfasts to prom photos to weddings and receptions to civic functions…etc., etc….

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