Maintaining older churches is a challenge

Keeping up appearances

  • Follow Your Faith

Early Sunday morning before the first parishioner arrives, Herbert Flowers unlocks the doors of St. John United Methodist Church. He turns on the lights and surveys the sanctuary, where he spent part of his week polishing communion ware, dusting the pulpit and vacuuming between pews.

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Herbert Flowers succeeded great-uncle James Dixon as sexton at St. John United Methodist. Dixon was sexton for 40 years.  MICHAEL HOLAHAN/STAFF
MICHAEL HOLAHAN/STAFF
Herbert Flowers succeeded great-uncle James Dixon as sexton at St. John United Methodist. Dixon was sexton for 40 years.

“Herb,” as he’s known to church members, is the church’s sexton.

“It’s sort of old-fashioned,” Flowers said with a laugh. “Most people don’t even know what a sexton is today.”

He’s held the job for two years, succeeding his great-uncle, James Dixon, who was in charge of the upkeep of the church as St. John sexton for nearly 40 years.

Church sextons were traditionally tasked with grave-digging and bell-ringing, but the office has evolved along with the church. Today, they are more likely to perform a range of housekeeping, lawn-care and maintenance tasks.

Downtown’s oldest churches in particular offer challenges for church maintenance staff. The brick sanctuary of St. John dates to 1844 and the stained glass, which was added in the 1890s, is delicate. Flowers is careful to clean it with nothing but a damp rag.

“It’s a good-looking old building,” he said. “It’s got stories to tell. I’m just trying to keep it looking good.”

Across the street, Bob Meismer is the facilities manager for the Church of the Most Holy Trinity, a Catholic church whose building was consecrated in 1863.

“In a building that’s 150 years old, there’s continual maintenance,” he said. “There’s probably 400 lights in there. They always need replacing. People don’t realize what’s involved in the upkeep of old buildings.”

Between the parish school, Immaculate Conception, the rectory, lawn and social hall, the job of the “church handyman” is a busy one, said Meismer, 70.

“You never know what it’s going to be any given day, but that’s why I like it,” he said. “It’s everything from air conditioners to pencil sharpeners. It’s pest control and fire extinguishers, and preparing the kitchen for health inspections. It’s the stuff nobody else is thinking of.”

At First Presbyterian Church in Augusta, the maintenance staff is tasked with caring for a building that dates to 1812.

“It’s hard to keep a church this old looking this good,” said Chris White, director of ministry operations.

There’s a reason they try, he said.

“It really comes down to our theology,” he said. “The church’s mission is, ‘Restoring people and rebuilding places through the gospel of Jesus Christ.’ We exist to restore people, but we’re also about restoring places. We think it honors and represents God to keep up with a place.”

White works with a staff that includes two maids, two sextons and three maintenance workers. A landscaping crew handles the grounds.

“They work pretty much nonstop throughout the week,” he said. “There’s always something to do.”

That’s because details matter, White said.

“We will replace one little chandelier light bulb that’s out,” he said. “We use a really tall ladder and someone who’s not afraid of heights.”

Tavaris Jones, the sexton of Saint Paul’s Church, climbs a ladder to an attic walkway to change the bulbs in the church’s highest recessed lights. Thankfully, he said, the chandeliers were built on a pulley system, so they can be let down.

Jones spends hours a week staging the church for events. Sanctuary carpets must be rolled up, and pews are sometimes repositioned for musical performances.

“It takes three people to move a pew,” said Clay Coleman, the church’s handyman for 20 years. “It’s a big job.”

Saint Paul’s present-day sanctuary was consecrated in 1919 after the 1916 fire that destroyed hundreds of Augusta homes and buildings, including the church’s 1820 sanctuary.

“It was rebuilt with a slate roof,” Coleman said. It’s leaks are a constant challenge for maintenance staff. “We don’t seem to be able to find anybody that can repair it.”

A few years ago, the church set out to renovate its grounds and clean up the old tombstones in the church yard.

“Some of those stones go back to 1770,” said Joe Lojewski, Saint Paul’s head of buildings and grounds.

Keeping up the property encourages visitors to the church, a national historic site and the oldest church in Augusta.

"Every week is spring cleaning for us," he said.

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