Rock Creek Presbyterian celebrates 200th anniversary

click to enlarge Rock Creek Presbyterian celebrates 200th anniversary
The “new” church building was built in 1892, replacing the first meetinghouse.

The day I ventured out to Tallula, Illinois, turning off Route 97 onto Rock Creek Road near Petersburg, I was awed by the brilliant oranges and reds of the leaves in the trees lining the road. I arrived at the Rock Creek Presbyterian Church to meet with some members of the congregation. When I was given a book about the church, I discovered I hadn't been the only one struck by the fall colors. Two hundred years ago, John M. Berry, the new minister for the area, arrived in this exact spot. His wife wrote of their arrival in October 1822, "a beautiful sight ...Trees of elm, oak, and maple, in their dress of autumn colors...seemed to say 'Welcome.'"

Rock Creek Presbyterian Church is a small white church with a large bell housed in a steeple. It was built in 1892, replacing the first meetinghouse. Inside, windows with triangular peaks on each side of the sanctuary wash the space in shades of oranges, yellows, pinks and blues, depending on the light. A cemetery with a circular drive sits on one side of the building. A large manse, first built in 1873 and replaced in 1908, sits on the other side.

This month, on Nov. 22, 2022, the church will celebrate its 200th anniversary. A program will be held on Sunday, Nov. 20.

Several members of the congregation – Hazel Golden, Anne Smith, Tim Hurie and John Whitehurst – share stories and reminisce. Golden, 96, has been attending the church with her husband since they married 62 years ago. He is the oldest parishioner. Smith, Hurie and Whitehurst have attended since they were babies. Anne's father served as minister for 30 years, from 1961-1991. She says, "We always have been like a close-knit family."

That extended to the three of them attending the two-room schoolhouse for some of their elementary years in the early 1960s. That school building is just down the road from the church. It closed in 1964 and is now used as a spiritual center. Located on 16 acres, it can be used for retreats by groups or individuals. It has 22 beds, a meeting room, dining and kitchen area, and showers, along with a campfire ring, picnic area, playground and outdoor chapel with seating for 80.

Whitehurst says, "Many of the kids in the area went to school together, and we went to church together." Hurie says, "I remember the drawing I made at school when I was 10. I drew our communion table and the large cross that sits on it." With that he walks to the front of the church, picks up a cross, and brings it back to the group.

The history of the church goes back to that day in 1822 when the Berry family arrived. It may have been a beautiful day, but they discovered their promised cabin had not been built. The family lived in a tent and their covered wagon until a house was completed. In the meantime, the families in the area – Hamilton, Young, Taylor, Wood and Comton – formed the Rock Creek Society and started a church, signing the document on Nov. 22, 1822.

Berry had fought in the War of 1812 and in the Battle of New Orleans, where he witnessed the lowering of the British flag. He ministered to families for 20 years before a meetinghouse was erected in 1842. Until then, services and meetings were held in various homes. Religious camp meetings convened each year; families arrived in their wagons, set up tents or small cabins, and for up to two weeks enjoyed religious services, large meals, singing and praying. Legend has it that young Abraham Lincoln accompanied Rev. Berry to meetings. Berry's son, William, was Lincoln's store partner at New Salem and had served under Lincoln in the Black Hawk War. Rev. Berry served the church for 30 years, until 1852.

The small cemetery is the resting place of Rev. Berry (1857), his mother-in law Charity, who was the first to be buried in the cemetery (1834), and Berry's son, William (1835). Research about those resting in the cemetery has produced a list of key people buried there. There are many who served in various wars: War of 1812, the Revolutionary War, Mexican War, Black Hawk War and Civil War. Elihu Bone (1795-1857) had been a wheelwright, built a cotton gin, and served in the Illinois legislature from 1842-1844.

Rock Creek's current pastor, Joanne Hinds, has been with the church for the past four years, after the death of David Daniel, who was killed in a car accident. Hines says, "I keep hearing about the famous chicken dinners here at the church." That gets all talking. From 1957-1993, people came from all around for the annual August chicken dinner. Golden says, "After the church service, I stood outside and handed 10-pound bags of potatoes to families. They were to cook the potatoes, dice them up, and bring them back so the cooks could make huge bowls of potato salad." Smith adds, "We made pies, 25 at a time, and you were NOT to use canned filling." Huge kettles stood over open fires outside, and the chickens were fried in them. The dinners drew hundreds. Smith says, "One year we had 1,300 people." Many still talk about the dinners. Asked why they quit the tradition, they all say, "Too much work and too hot."

The members of Rock Creek are proud of their tradition and the lasting legacy the church has had. Hurie says, "The church developed my character and my faith." Smith adds, "Everyone looks out for each other, and we are all like family."

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