Early this past summer the historic Steele Creek Presbyterian Church, near the city of Charlotte, North Carolina, closed its doors for good. The church, the second oldest in Mecklenburg County, having been founded in 1760—nearly 259 years ago—by hardy Scots settlers to the region, merged with another Presbyterian Church in the area, Pleasant Hill. The classic 1889 Gothic-revival style brick structure was abandoned, purchased by nearby expanding Charlotte Douglas International Airport.
As late as the early 1970s Steele Creek counted 1,000 members, but the encroaching airport and the constant deafening roar of supersonic jets every moment of the day speeding off to Munich, London, Latin America and all points in between, plus the precipitous decline in the Presbyterian Church USA, which has gone the way of all mainstream Protestant denominations and embraced the liberal social gospel, had brought the membership down to around 350, many of them adults who held on to the memory of a Presbyterianism that once boasted of a Reverend Robert Lewis Dabney…but now could only grasp for scraps from a barren progressivist table.
Next to the historic 1889 building is the Steele Creek Cemetery, one of the more historic burial grounds in Piedmont North Carolina, holding over 1,700 graves, the earliest from 1763, twelve years before the onset of the Revolutionary War [See: The History of Steele Creek Presbyterian Church, 1745-1978; Third Edition, Charlotte, 1978]
In that cemetery are laid veterans of every conflict and war that the American nation has engaged in: those who served during the Revolution when the then-tiny hamlet of Charlotte served as an unwelcoming “hornet’s nest” for General Lord Cornwallis; a few who went off later to fight in Mexico or against Britain again in the early Nineteenth Century; many more who joined Confederate ranks to defend the independence and rights of North Carolina in 1861-1865; then, others who fought in the great world wars and conflicts since then. But there are others, also: husbands and wives, and children, of those who had formed up until recently a close-knit, church-oriented farming community like many spread over the Tar Heel State and the South.
Since 1777 over sixty members of my father’s family have been buried in Steele Creek’s sacred ground. Six of them are direct ancestors, including my grandfather and grandmother Cathey, my War Between the States great-grandfather, Henry Cathey (of the 13th North Carolina Regiment), and my eight-greats grandmother, Jean, who was born in County Monaghan, Ulster, in 1692, a descendant of Scots who migrated there from Ayrshire in the early 1600s. As a young boy I recall vividly attending the funeral of my grandfather, Charlton Graham Cathey (1958), in the old sanctuary and the impressive minister Reverend John McAlpine who comforted my grandmother who would pass on four years later in 1962, aged nearly 98.
Those events remain engraved in my memory, even to the point of recalling the hymns sung at granddad’s funeral—“How Firm a Foundation” and “Blessed Assurance,” two of his favorites.
But most of all, I remember that remarkable church, its strong and impressive brick structure, that aura associated with and radiated by it, which deeply connected it to the history of old Mecklenburg County, to North Carolina, and to the land and families who settled nearby, and for which it was the center of their lives for generations.
The cemetery remains in church hands, despite the shrinking congregation having departed. It is too historic, so despite some earlier efforts by the airport authority to have the graves moved, it will remain where it is for the foreseeable future. But the old 1889 structure, its brick walls and interior now silent, is deserted, owned by the airport, serving only as a disappearing memory for those who care to recall what it once meant to so many.
If we compare modern million-person Charlotte and its international airport to the history-haunted walls and ancient graveyard of Steele Creek, we are reminded of what has been lost. For in the bustle of the metropolis and the incessant noise of the jets zooming off to Europe or perhaps to Cancun, there is little memory of who we were as a people, little connection to our rich historic culture. Our modern society is hypnotized by machines, including the most impersonal and inhuman technology, and it has little room for Steele Creek and what it represents.
In the late 1950s, Charlotte, “the Queen City” that I remember as a boy, was where older families yet predominated, where my father’s people were neighbors to the families of Billy Graham and Randolph Scott, where folks could recall the area’s history. Charlotte and Mecklenburg County were still linked strongly to their traditions. Now Charlotte rivals Atlanta as a mega-metropolis, and a soul-less anthill of business, banking and international commerce, with little room for heritage, except as a veneer to attract an occasional tourist not going to a Carolina Panthers game or to some big event at the coliseum.
I forget who said it—perhaps Faulkner, maybe Louis Rubin, I cannot remember—but that if he had known what Atlanta would become today, then he would wish that Sherman had torched it more thoroughly. Given what Charlotte has become, perhaps the same sentiment might be expressed?
The last major portions of farmland out near the Catawba River that had belonged to my dad’s family since 1750 are now sold to developers and strip malls. The pre-Revolutionary War house that my father was born in back in 1908 (the last of his family to do so) is now, thankfully, preserved at the Historic Latta Plantation. But the whole region has changed radically, altered and almost unrecognizable and discordant to my memories of sixty years ago. Hundreds of thousands of transplants (mainly from up North) now make Charlotte and its suburbs home and live—if you wish to call it that—the frenzied life of our tawdry, commercialized age.
I am put in mind of the great Southern Regionalist writer, Donald Davidson, in his epic poem, “The Tall Men”:
There are remnants of the old culture that survive, a few, but they are fast being overtaken by a triumphant “Yankee” culture which Robert Lewis Dabney warned about 140 years ago, the fear that we would, as he said, become like our conquerors of 1865. Dabney, the Old Light Presbyterian divine that he was, declared that his role was like that of Cassandra at Troy, to prophesy and speak truth, but not to be believed until too late.
My mentor Russell Kirk once told me while we were discussing the old South and the changes being inflicted on her from both without and within that “it is hard to love the gasoline station where the honeysuckle used to grow.”
Steele Creek Church and its cemetery remind us who we are and who we have been. Despite being passed by and deserted, those grave stones cry out to those who would listen and take heed.
Perhaps, then, for those who do, our watchword could be from Spanish philosopher, Miguel de Unamuno in his volume, The Tragic Sense of Life: “Our life is a hope which is continually converting itself into memory and memory in its turn begets hope.”
Is this not, then, our challenge, to keep both memory and hope alive?
Boyd D. Cathey holds a doctorate in European history from the Catholic University of Navarra, Pamplona, Spain, where he was a Richard Weaver Fellow, and an MA in intellectual history from the University of Virginia (as a Jefferson Fellow). He was assistant to conservative author and philosopher the late Russell Kirk. In more recent years he served as State Registrar of the North Carolina Division of Archives and History. He has published in French, Spanish, and English, on historical subjects as well as classical music and opera. He is active in the Sons of Confederate Veterans and various historical, archival, and genealogical organizations.