Old Baptist Church Redone and Ready for Its Closeup

By VICTORIA FORD | Sep 27, 2017
Photo by: Ryan Morrill

Stafford Township Historical Society President Jason Hazelton’s eyes fill with love when he describes how it feels to enter the town’s painstakingly restored Baptist Church, built in 1758.

“It’s like stepping back in time,” he says, his glance sweeping across the original tin ceiling, over the rows of narrow pews and down at the uneven floorboards.

Hazelton is in his second year as society president, although his involvement with the organization as a trustee started about five years ago and his appreciation for the work of preserving the town’s history was instilled in him in childhood.

“Both of my grandparents were founding members (of the historical society),” he said. “It’s always been a part of my life.” He remembers as a kid helping out at fundraisers for the Old Stone Store at Heritage Park. But a long local family history is not required for membership, he said – only a love of the town’s history and the desire to share it with others.

Today, according to Hazelton, a small core group of five to eight individuals power the efforts to raise funds and “give up a Saturday” here and there to do a cleanup at a historic site in need of some TLC. The great thing about the care and maintenance of historical sites, he noted, is it’s apolitical. It hasn’t mattered who was in official positions over the years. Everyone has wanted to do what’s best to protect historical assets. The old buildings all have modern heating and cooling systems, for example. They have been kept up as needed to remain safe and usable. The train station, a museum and event space, was restored right before the holidays last year.

In recent years, township Councilman Paul Marchal has been a champion of the cause to fund and advance the renovations to the old Baptist church. He is a member of the historical society and council liaison to the Recreation Department.

“I’m a newbie,” Marchal said, relatively speaking, “but I love my town, and I love the history.” For him the rewards are in watching the progress of restoring and authenticating precious landmarks.

The Baptist church, for one, is an iconic image that people recognize from history texts about Stafford, he said. As one of the town’s oldest faith traditions (the other being Methodist), the church was built only 10 years after the town itself was founded.

The building was used as a hospital during the Revolution, and it was also a schoolhouse.

In the cemetery behind the church, a monument stands to mark the mass grave of more than 100 victims from The Powhatan, a packet ship that sank off the New Jersey coast in 1854, killing hundreds of passengers, mostly German immigrants. Bodies washed up in Peahala Park on Long Beach Island and farther south toward Atlantic City. An estimated 140 ended up buried behind the Baptist church. Fifty years later the state erected the monument, which reads, “The Unknown from the Sea.”

Elsewhere throughout the graveyard, some of the oldest headstones need repair, so the town is looking for a specialist. The grounds are far larger than visible from the street – “and if you want to know how really big it is, come when we mow,” Marchal remarked.

Hazelton’s aunt Doris Cranmer wrote the application in 1972 to get the church on the National Register of Historic Places. Now it has achieved a new status in town as not only a viable meeting space (the local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution gather there) but also a desirable wedding venue. Hazelton estimated 15 to 20 weddings have been held in the tiny chapel in the last couple of years, and three more are booked for October.

For couples wanting an outdoor ceremony, the Pavilion is a nice option, and the church is offered as a backup plan – “rain insurance.”

With so many young people nowadays concerned with capturing a certain “rustic elegance” aesthetic for their social media profiles, Hazelton pointed out, “this just makes it.” The wavy glass panes, the red carpet and pew cushions – these are details not lost on the discerning eye of today’s photo-centric generation. The only major piece of the puzzle remaining is to repaint the exterior and interior, returning it all to its original white.

Framed portraits of the Oliphants, early residents with ancestors still living and active, hang on the walls, along with original and reproduced historic documents and maps. A trap door in the pulpit floor opens to a baptismal font.

“You can’t help but feel that (presence of history) when you’re in here,” Marchal said.

Buildings and grounds foreman Michael Headman was married there 20 years ago. Local musician Ryan Zimmerman has taken a shine to the building since playing there one time when a Pavilion concert was rained out. He loves the acoustics and plans to use the space to record songs.

The restoration has been done in bits and pieces since about 2006 but ramped up in the last year or two, precipitated by the need to remove two chimneys. Public works employees demolished the chimneys, got under the building to shore it up from the “Yankee basement” and dealt with the structural issues. The bulk of the construction phase took about four months last spring, with the goal to get it all spiffed up in time for a wedding scheduled in June.

“They put their heart and soul into it,” Hazelton praised the talented township staff. The ornate iron gate and fence out front were made in-house, as were the new signs.

Hazelton said he wants people to know and love the historic landmarks but also to know they are functional and accessible for public use.

The historical society meets on the third Wednesday of each month. Guest speakers have included artists, historians, parks and recreation representatives, traditionalists, environmental experts and more. Twice a year, usually in October and June, the society conducts a walking tour with historian Tim Hart, followed by an ice cream social.


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