The restoration of the historic Immanuel Church in Winona

April 5, 2013 in Religion

By Monica Land

The historic Immanual Church in Winona dates back to 1909. (Photos by Monica Land)

Although many of its original members are long gone, the bells of the Immanuel Church in Montgomery County still ring at least once a month. Situated on the corner of Fairground and Summit Streets in the heart of Winona, Immanuel stands as a monument to a rich and prominent past.

And with the acquisition of grant funds totaling more than $300,000, supporters of the historical structure are determined to keep it that way.

Erected in 1909, Immanuel Church – formerly Immanuel Episcopal Church – replaced an earlier wood frame structure that was built in 1876 by Major and Mrs. Frank Hawkins. The original church was located on Summit Street nearer to the downtown area and had a large chancel window depicting the ascension of Jesus into heaven. That same stained glass window now adorns the center of the rear wall of the present building which was constructed and donated to the Episcopal Diocese of Mississippi by Captain and Mrs. James C. Purnell.

The chancel window from the original Immanuel Episcopal Church now stands at Immanuel in Winona.

As a matter of interest, Purnell’s wife, Elizabeth Eunice, was the daughter of Major and Mrs. Hawkins and the captain’s family later founded the town of Duck Hill, Miss.

According to Immanuel history, both Major Hawkins and Captain Purnell were prominent businessmen and philanthropists, as well as devout churchmen. In fact, Purnell personally financed the paving of all the streets in Winona, which at the time, surpassed those paved in Jackson, the capital city of Mississippi.

Throughout the years, supporters said the new Immanuel church, a solid one-story brick building, had a faithful following up until the early 1990s when the membership dwindled to less than a dozen.

Mrs. Nona Tillman, of Winona, attended Immanuel Episcopal as a child, and recalls when the church bustled with activity.

“My family moved here when I was eight months old,” Tillman said. “So, as far back as I can remember, which is when I was about 3-years-old, I remember going to Immanuel.”

Tillman said she has fond memories of attending Sunday School and other services at Immanuel including an annual Easter Egg hunt that was originally held on the lawn of the Purnell House (currently the Price House) just across the street from the church. And significantly, in 1954, Nona married her husband, Harmon Tillman, within the gothic walls of Immanuel.

The gothic architecture of Immanuel aided in the historical status of the church.

The existing Immanuel Church has many decorative stained glass windows including the depiction of The Good Samaritan and Jesus walking on water, which adds an old world flair to the building. Tillman says those windows were a fixture in the original church and date back to 1909.

“It was a great place to go to church every Sunday,” she said. “Just going to the church and sitting in the church looking at those windows would draw you to God by themselves. It was such a great spiritual environment.”

Immanuel also stands as a personal tribute to the Hawkins Family with a framed dedication in the chancel window in front of the altar to Major John Hawkins, who died in 1896 at the age of 81, and his wife, Ann, who died in 1897. Also immortalized in the church is their son, John Davis Hawkins, Jr., who died at the age of 35 in 1911; and a 2-year old girl, Susan Elizabeth Hawkins, who died in 1894. Her parentage is unclear, but the marble baptismal font that bears her name simply says, “In Loving Memory of My Little Daughter.”

A stained glass window over the altar bears the name of the church founders, Frank and Ann Hawkins.

According to Winona history, the Frank Hawkins family moved to Winona from Carroll County shortly after the Civil War – with Hawkins said to be the wealthiest man in the state of Mississippi. Hawkins was also a direct descendant of Sir John and Sir Richard Hawkins of British Naval fame (half of the British Maritime Museum in Greenwich is devoted to their accomplishments).

After relocating to Winona after the Civil War, the Hawkins family – using their own money – established banks, operated cotton plantations from the Delta to Madison County, and established schools and Episcopal churches.

Although the Episcopal Church in the United States began as the Church of England and maintains an apostolic succession, the tenants of the faith in America date back to 1497.

“The name Episcopal doesn’t mean anything spiritual, it means bishop,” said Tillman, quoted earlier. “And it came to be used after the American Revolution when the colonists broke off from the Church of England. Today, it’s known as the Anglican Communion and it has churches in Asia, Africa and other places.”

Reportedly, during the early 1980s, the Episcopal church nationwide, showed a rapid decline in membership due to the ordination of female priests and other minor controversies. And for its members, in 1991 the Episcopal Diocese of Mississippi made the painstaking decision to close the doors of Immanuel. But for many of the faithful, like Tillman, Immanuel had been the spiritual home for many dedicated Winonians who were faithful in both mission and Christian education.

“At Immanuel, mission meant both mission locally and mission in terms of sending financial aid to missionaries and projects around the world,” she said. “Immanuel was very supportive of church mission projects and they were faithful ministers to the poor and the needy including the needy in Winona.”

A baptismal font (pictured) at the church bears the name of a 2-year-old girl, Susan Elizabeth Hawkins, who died.

It was this rich history and an appreciation for the beauty of the building that moved a

group of concerned citizens in Montgomery County to save Immanuel from the threat of deterioration. This group, Friends of Immanuel, was formed and spearheaded by local resident Billy Graves and the late senator Billy Lancaster.

“We’re Methodists,” said Jackie Lancaster of her late husband, Billy. “But we have people who are dedicated from many other churches to come over here because we hated to see the building go into disrepair. It was all about preserving a historical landmark.”

Immanuel was designated a Mississippi Historical Landmark on July 27, 2005, and received a historical marker in 2011.

Tillman serves as secretary for the Friends of Immanuel.

“I think it’s wonderful that the church is being preserved,” she said. “Without the Friends of Immanuel it would have fallen into decline and you can’t preserve a building like that without maintenance.”

In the spring of 1992, the group contacted the Episcopal Bishop of Mississippi and offered to repair and maintain the building and pay the insurance premiums if they would be allowed to hold an ecumenical service there once month. The bishop agreed and Friends of Immanuel began to sponsor worship services on the second Sunday of each month conducted by various local ministers, as well as an annual liturgical Christmas service.

When the Episcopal Diocese decided to sell the building in 1997, the first option was given to Friends of Immanuel. Within a few weeks, the money was raised and the church was made available to the public for weddings and other religious services.

Through generous donations from the community, the church has been maintained and improved with the addition of central heating and air conditioning. A donation from Mary and Thomas Sisson of Delaware and Paris, France, provided a beautiful new carpet, which is an exact replica of Immanuel’s original carpet.

Grant funding has financed a new roof, electrical and plumbing work, brick restoration, painting and other interior repairs.

The Friends of Immanuel also hosted a celebratory reception a few years ago honoring Immanuel’s 100th year.

Tillman said being able to see the church as she travels through Winona is a constant reminder – a joyful reminder – of her childhood many years ago.

“It always brings happy memories for me,” she said. “Grateful memories. Immanuel was a symbol of the development of my Christian faith and I’ll always be very grateful for that.”