LINCOLNTON—“It’s one of the saddest things to ever happen to us here.”
That’s how Pug Drinkwater put it Tuesday, speaking from the historic St. Luke’s Episcopal Church. The church administrator, Drinkwater was referring to the distinctive and massive water oak in front of St. Luke’s parish house. The tree is estimated by experts to be some 300 years old and thought perhaps the oldest in all of Lincolnton.
But now, she said, the tree is unfortunately diseased and must soon be cut down.
It’s the end of an era for what is commonly regarded as the most beautiful church in Lincoln County, located at 315 N. Cedar St. in downtown Lincolnton.
“To me,” said Drinkwater, “it represents holy ground, because the memory garden was built around that tree. We always thought that tree would live forever. And of course, our faith teaches us that we will live forever. Still, it’s very sad.”
Long-time church member Kae Wright, well known locally for her years with the Arts Council of Lincoln County, also talked about the awesome oak.
“It is with great sadness that we report to you that our faithful, old oak tree, that stands in front of the parish house, is going to have to come down,” said Wright. “It has been examined by professionals, and everyone is in agreement that it is diseased and could be a danger to the parish house and the grounds. A tree service will be coming in the next few weeks to take it down.”
Church historian Linda Hoyle gave some background on both the tree and St. Luke’s itself.
“I have grieved over it,” Hoyle said of the oak, “and through the years, I’ve watched the limbs break off.”
Arboreal experts have performed much maintenance work on the tree over the years.
But now, its felling “can’t be put off any longer,” said Hoyle, citing dangers not only to the parish house but also to nearby gravestones.
She added that Don Olsen, a church member and master woodcarver, plans to take care of the tree’s remains.
Hoyle said St. Luke’s first congregation formed in 1841. The church was completed and consecrated in 1843, when the oak would have been tall and approaching what for such trees is middle age.
A ceremony to honor the tree was held Sunday. A ribbon was tied round its trunk, and many people spoke lovingly of this venerable sentinel.
Drinkwater also cited a poem about the tree, written by the mother-daughter team of Stephanie and Madison Warren. It reads in part:
“I have seen many things in the span of my life.
As a youngster, I witnessed the first settlers of Lincoln County.
I observed as the first parishioners built the first St. Luke’s Church...
I have witnessed countless weddings,
As well as the baptisms of endless babies.
I was there when the soldiers were brought home from the battlefield
And laid to rest.
And I have mourned with every family
That has buried their loved ones.
I have opened my ground to pirates and slaves,
Generals and commoners;
All God’s children are welcome.
I have watched the procession of palms every Palm Sunday,
And I have shared in all the glory and tradition of Easter Sunday.
I have admired the glow of candles through the stained glass windows
On Christmas Eve.
I listen to the joyous ringing that penetrates the bell tower walls
And flows into the neighborhood on Cedar Street.
Year after year, I watch as the exuberant and vividly colored flowers
Spring from the ground and saturate the memorial garden.
I listen to the sweet music created by the bluebirds.
I endure the blistering heat of the summer sun,
And I offer a cool place to sit for anyone passing by.
In the fall, I release my beauty
And stand tall and proud through the bitter winter.
I am the mighty and majestic oak tree of St. Luke’s.”
Churchwarden and sexton Glen Thorpe has spent much time in the church’s cemetery. The graves are well known for their beauty and age, many of them going back well across the span of two centuries. According to local legend, the Louisiana-based pirate, Jean Lafitte, is buried in the graveyard under a tabletop-style slab, on which is carved the nom-de-guerre of “Lorenzo Ferrer.”
In the upper part of these hallowed grounds, the spot designated by a distinctive obelisk (rebuilt after the original was toppled by Hurricane Hugo in September, 1989), lies the body of a man who is probably the cemetery’s most famous occupant: Confederate hero Stephen Dodson Ramseur, one of the South’s youngest generals. Ramseur, who grew up right down the street from St. Luke’s, was only 27 when he was mortally wounded during the Battle of Cedar Creek in 1864.
The following year, with the end of the War Between the States, Easter sunrise services began being observed at St. Luke’s, as Drinkwater informed.
The old oak would have born silent witness to the burials of Ramseur and Ferrer; countless other loved ones; and, in the words of Thornton Wilder, long, slow stretches of “time and rainy days and sunny days and snow.”
“This makes me very sad,” Thorpe said of the oak, adding, “The drought years have taken a heavy toll on our beloved trees.”
St. Luke’s is part of the Episcopal Church Western Diocese of North Carolina. The church is in partnership with the Church of the Epiphany in Newton.
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