A History of Saint Mary Magdalene Episcopal Church in the Diocese of North Carolina
In 1980 several residents of Troy, North Carolina who attended Christ Episcopal Church in Albemarle took seriously the suggestion of the rector, The Rev. Phillip Byrum, that the time was right to begin an Episcopal mission in Montgomery County. A meeting was held and a decision was made to forge ahead and start a mission. The waiting room of Dr. Bill Hanham’s office in Troy became the meeting place for the first fledgling congregation of six. For five years services were held there each Thursday evening. Father Byrum and other visiting clergy from the area celebrated the Eucharist each week. Membership slowly increased and other activities began. A Sunday School for adults and children was begun. An E.C.W. (Episcopal Church Women) was formed. Lay readers were trained and led services. An organist was secured to play for services. The necessary twenty communicants were secured and the mission was recognized by the North Carolina Diocese. Delegates to the Diocesan Convention were elected and attended. An energetic and lively new congregation emerged.
Saint Mary Magdalene was the named patron of the mission through the suggestion of the Bishop Co-adjutor The Rt. Rev. Robert W. Estill. He had expressed an opinion that new missions in the diocese ought to be named for one of the female giants of the faith. Mary Magdalene was selected as she certainly had a significant impact on the life of the early church.
In the meantime, about an acre of land in downtown Troy, NC was donated and bigger dreams became possible. By 1985 there was enough money to purchase a custom-built modular building and place it on the property, which was just one block from the main street (Route 24/27). A basement parish hall was constructed and a pitched roof was added. The men of the mission installed cedar siding and the entry doors were painted red. A sign announcing Saint Mary Magdalene Episcopal Church Founded 1980 was erected. A small steeple crowned with a cross was added to the structure. The women landscaped the grounds. Saint Mary Magdalene had a beautiful new home.
During this time the mission had no full-time clergy. Those who served were loving, dedicated leaders and counselors. Remarkably, Saint Mary Magdalene was always self-sufficient and never needed to ask the diocese for any monetary support. The church always paid its full diocesan asking and assessment on time. As the years passed it became apparent the membership was decreasing even though the church was visible and well accepted in the Troy community. Troy is a low-growth, predominantly Methodist and Baptist mill town. The congregation, in an attempt to grow, decided to broaden its advertising to include the Seven Lakes, NC district in southern Moore County.
A number of residents of Seven Lakes began attending Saint Mary Magdalene services by making the 22-mile long drive to Troy each week. With the decreasing involvement of people from Troy it appeared that the church should go where the people were responding. After much debate, prayer, and thought the difficult decision was made to move Saint Mary Magdalene closer to Seven Lakes. By moving the mission and not closing it, the accumulated assets were retained as a base for a “second chance” to grow a church.
The history of Saint Mary Magdalene, like all churches, is not merely dates and facts, but it is about people. It is about good times and hard times and “making do” times. It is about people working together, loving each other and sharing the excitement of being part of a common cause. It was a close-knit group in those times. A lot of love passed through those red doors in Troy and there are fond memories of those days. But, a new chapter was to begin in the year 2000 with plans for a relocation of the Saint Mary Magdalene Mission to Seven Lakes. Memories remain of young acolytes, new lay readers and leaders, parish dinners, the clergy who served the church so well and even the temperamental organ that produced music both good and bad, but always exuberant. It was a hands-on time for everyone, which made it special and precious for all.
The second change began in 2001 when the mission moved from Troy to Seven Lakes. The church rented the Chapel in the Pines on Sunday morning for $75 per Sunday, taking the 11 o’clock time slot for Episcopal services. A tiny closet was made available to house hymnals, BCPs, and altar supplies. The clergy that led the services were The Rev. Fred Thompson and The Rt. Rev. Elliott Sorge, retired Bishop of Easton Maryland and former Bishop of South-Central Brazil. His title was Bishop’s Advisor for Saint Mary Magdalene. The attendance gradually increased to 45 to 60 over the first several months at Seven Lakes.
Then the membership began discussing the possibility of having its own facility. When it happened, some members decided not to participate and dropped out. A storefront building on Seven Lakes Drive was located which the Baptist Church had recently vacated when they moved to a larger facility. The move to the storefront resulted in a slight drop in membership.
Saint Mary Magdalene joined the Sandhills Cluster with The Rev. Lada Hardwick as the Cluster clergy support person. The church contributed $2000 to the financing of the Cluster. The vestry and others noticed that all the other churches in the community had full-time clergy leadership and consideration was given to going in that direction. The diocese was approached about helping to provide a full-time clergy presence. A search was begun and The Rev. Robert Laws was selected to be the Vicar of the church. The diocese made a three-year commitment, pledging $25,000 the first year, $18,000 the second year, and $12,000 the third to assist with the support of a priest. However, the diocese could not meet this obligation due in large part to the controversial consecration of Bishop Gene Robinson in the summer of 2003. Financial support toward the programs of the diocese was substantially reduced and the diocese could no longer meet its three-year commitment. The Robinson controversy affected Saint Mary Magdalene directly. Some members took offense and several vestry members withdrew their support and resigned their positions following his elevation that fall. Several church families transferred their membership to other Christian communities. Those losses in membership caused great concern and hardship. It became obvious that without the financial support of them and the diocese the church could no longer afford the services of a full-time vicar. The Rev. Robert Laws served his last Sunday at Saint Mary Magdalene on January 31, 2004.
Bette Hanham, Senior Warden at the time, arranged to have two retired priests supply the church until it could regroup. These two men, The Rev. Robert H. Brown and The Rev. Fred Thompson alternated duties throughout the years that followed. Attendance had declined to about 25 each Sunday when they began in February 2004. It began to climb following their stabilizing influence on the congregation.
In April 2007, Bette Hanham, and Deacon Carol Burgess met with the two priests to discuss their future relationship with the Saint Mary Magdalene community. As a result of the meeting and a subsequent meeting with Bishop Michael Curry, The Rev. Robert H. Brown was named Vicar of the church and The Rev.
Fred Thompson was appointed Priest Associate. The Rev. Carol Burgess was appointed Deacon Associate. Together these three provided the leadership and pastoral care need at this time of the church’s parish life. Their energy and innovative approach gave Saint Mary Magdalene new purpose and vitality. The Church, once again, began to grow. By 2008 the attendance on Sundays had climbed to about 50. Hope for the future was renewed.
In January 2008 Father Brown invited a Baptist Pastor, The Rev. Kenneth Hankins to talk to the vestry about church growth. He was the pastor of the church, which first rented, then sold the storefront facility to Saint Mary Magdalene when his church moved to larger quarters. The Rev. Hankins was an inspiration to the vestry that heard and understood his call to growth. The congregation also became enthused and committed. The year 2008 saw many changes to the Saint Mary Magdalene family and facility. The church was energized and excited about expanding its ministry to the hurting world around it. The church undertook a renovation program to enhance its facilities and make them more attractive. It planned for welcoming new members when they came. It increased the advertising efforts in the local newspaper and expanded its programs of Christian education and social ministry involvement. The exterior church sign was raised to make it more noticeable and brighter lights were added at night. A capital campaign to underwrite the planned renovations was created.
Today, Saint Mary Magdalene continues to expand on the programs of the past and looks to the future through concentrating its outreach efforts to improve the community that it adopted in early 2000 and nurturing the lives of the members of its congregation.
Saint Mary Magdalene has been blessed with having enjoyed the service of two dedicated clergy. The Rev. Fred Thompson retired from Saint Mary Magdalene in 2016 and The Rev. Carol Burgess retired in 2017. The Church is fortunate to have the continuing service of its Vicar, The Rev. Robert H. Brown.
Saint Mary Magdalene’s mission objective originates in the mandate of Jesus who said to his disciples “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you”. Matthew 28:19,20. This is the Great Commission and Saint Mary Magdalene Episcopal Church intends to be guided by that commission in all that it does.
This is the tradition Saint Mary Magdalene has built on as it lives in the twenty-first century-loving each other and spreading that love, grieving as loved ones pass on and celebrating the joys of being part of the Episcopal Church tradition.
“For no one can lay any foundation other that the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ.” 1 Corinthians 3:11.
We are indebted to Mrs. Bette Hanham for her recollections of the genesis of The Saint Mary Magdalene Mission which are the basis of this historical sketch. We are indebted to Bette for the support she and her late husband Bill Hanham have given over the years.