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Church aims to preserve old cemetery on its new property
The Rev. Gene Mallard looks at a headstone in a cemetery at St. Thomas the Apostle Anglican Church in Alto. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

ALTO — Every so often, a church building is put up for sale.

And if it's an older church, that sometimes means the cemetery is part of the sale, too.

That's the case at the new permanent home for St. Thomas the Apostle Anglican Church in Alto, which closed on the property  the former Pleasant Grove Methodist Church this past summer.

But the Rev. Gene Mallard, priest at St. Thomas, said the 1-acre cemetery adjoining the church property is a chance to preserve the 150-year tradition of the former church while providing new memories.

"It's one of the oldest, most historical cemeteries in Habersham County," said Mallard, who oversees a congregation of about 40 in Alto, just across the Hall County line on Mud Creek Road. "We were going through some of the grave sites out there, and we could see from the headstones they go back about 150 years."

The original church on the property, Pleasant Grove Methodist, was founded in 1868.

Mallard along with Elizabeth Grier, a 12-year member of the former Methodist church who now attends services at St. Thomas, recently walked through the property, pointing out markers for Civil War veterans and families who are still in the Habersham area.

One family's section, neatly marked out with gravel and foot stones denoting "Mother" and "Father," among other family members, helped build what is now the church's education wing.

"She had the dress shop in Cornelia," Grier said of the family's matriarch. "And she donated the moneys that built the education building."

The family of Grier's husband, Alvin Grier Jr., attended the former Methodist church and has family members buried there.

The Grier family has held reunions at the church since the 1970s, and Grier has old photos and church documents dating back to when the white clapboard church was served by a traveling pastor, met only once or twice a month and had a stove in the middle of the sanctuary for worshippers to stay warm.

Today, the Anglican church that occupies its walls follows a traditional Sunday service that is literally hundreds of years old.

The Anglican church comes directly from England, and its services was first practiced in North America in 1579. Services follow the "Book of Common Prayer" and include portions in Elizabethan English.

Mallard said the location was perfect for the parish because the congregation draws from many counties.

"We consider ourselves a regional parish; we're not just a community church, because there's not too many traditional Anglicans in Northeast Georgia," he said. "In the eight years we've been in existence (in the Alto area) ... we've drawn people from seven counties and three states."

At the little white church, some of the graves are just a few feet from the edge of the original building. Others are marked by simply a rock painted white.

"You can see these are pieces of stone that have been painted, but there's no names or anything on them so we have no idea," Mallard said. "We just know there's somebody buried there."

And while the church has only owned the property for about six months, Mallard already has a personal connection to the cemetery.

Just two days after the church closed on the building, Mallard's youngest daughter died. She was buried two days later, the first of the new church to mingle with the old.

"We closed on this property on the last Monday of June of this year, and then two days later my youngest daughter died very unexpectedly," Mallard said. "She was 35 and just dropped dead one night. She was the first person buried in this cemetery after we took it over; she's buried right down the way over there."

Mallard said the congregation would like to know more about the families in the cemetery.

"Our intention is to maintain the historicality of the cemetery," he said. "We have a lot of area down there where we can add, and as time goes on we expect to do that. But our intention is to maintain, as much as possible, the old part of the cemetery."

Mallard said he welcomes anyone with family members buried in the former Pleasant Grove Methodist Church's cemetery to come forward, and while the church does take care of mowing the grass in the summer, families may feel free to maintain the individual grave sites, he said.

But the marble pieces in the cemetery aren't the only stones with a storied past at the church's property.

On the other side of the church is the parish hall, built around a few 3-inch slabs of Jasper marble that have served as a meeting table for generations.

Grier said the table was originally made of plywood and supported on cinder blocks. But more then 30 years ago the Methodist church purchased the marble slabs and used those as the gathering place instead.

Eventually, walls were added to the roof and later more weather-resistant windows. The carpet was cut in pieces to install around the concrete blocks.

"At first ... it was out in the open," she said. "They just purchased this for the picnic table. ... I don't know how they put them on there."