A Conway resident has made it his mission to save a church that not only holds deep roots in his family, but also within the Mt. Vernon community in eastern Faulkner County.
Rick Henry, a 64-year-old preplanning consultant for Roller-McNutt Funeral Home, said he wants to save Hawthicket Church in Mt. Vernon to preserve its rich history in the area. But first, he said he needs help taking care of and funding the adjacent cemetery's upkeep.
To understand the need to save the church and its adjoining cemetery, it helps to have a grasp on some of the church's history, he said.
"It's an orphan church," he said, noting the original church once stood for more than 100 years before it was replaced in the early 1970s. "There was once a little white church with a tin roof and handmade pews that was there for over 100 years. It was also used as a school. That building was demolished in the early '70s and replaced with the current brick church, which is in need of repair. The roof is in disrepair ... and now the ceiling is falling apart."
Henry was raised in Mt. Vernon. His 81-year-old mother, Rheba, still lives in there, he said. Henry said the Hawthicket Church has been a part of is family for several generations. While he never personally attended services at the church, he said he feels he owes it to his roots to repair the dwindling piece of history.
The original church that stood for at least a century never had electricity, he said, noting his mother was hopeful the new church would last "for years and years and years."
"The original white church never had electricity," Henry said as he recalled stories recanted by his family of the church. "It had a wood-burning stove in the center of the church. The pews were handmade. I was gracious enough to get one of those when they tore down the white church and I have it in my parent's barn today. The original church bell from the little white church is still there ... it sits out front of the current brick church."
"Time sure has taken its toll," he said, shaking his head as he looked down at a photo of the hole that's formed in the church's roof. The brick church was built by Maude Henry.
Henry said that when Maude Henry built the brick church, he also set up a trust fund for the cemetery's upkeep. Those funds have since run dry, Henry said. Henry said that by the time the brick church was financed, most of its members had died, and from there, the church has only continued to fall apart.
"To my knowledge, there was never a service held in that church," he said.
Storms have since come and gone over the years. And the severe weather has only destroyed the church. Henry said he briefly moved to St. Louis and that when he returned, he learned the trust fund for the cemetery's upkeep had run dry.
The funds ran out about three years ago. Since then, he and other family members have paid about $1,600 annually to cover costs of the cemetery's upkeep out of respect. Henry said he is thankful for donations he's received over these three years, noting that any amount goes along way.
"We have been blessed to get donations over the years, which helps," he said. "We've had people donate that don't even have someone buried out in the cemetery, so that's a blessing. I get calls from many in their 80s and 90s who used to attend the church and want to help but are on a fixed income and can't donate large quantities. As I've explained to them, even $10 or $20 is gracious because five or six people doing that ... it adds up."
Henry said he and his mother, along with his sister and brother-in-law have taken it upon themselves to make sure the cemetery is maintained. However, Henry said he can't keep up on this track forever.
"I feel like in my heart, I have to try to save this church and this cemetery," he said.
Henry said one of his greatest memories each time he steps foot into Bethlehem Cemetery is a story his great-grandfather once told him about some boys who thought they saw a ghost in the middle of the cemetery.
Dead-center in the cemetery is a single or double grave, "we don't know fore sure because the cemetery has no records," Henry said, noting the center grave is enclosed by a 6-foot wire fence.
His great-grandfather told the same story, year after year, about the boys who ran up on his doorstep late at night because they thought they'd seen a ghost in the cemetery.
"These young boys were coming back from a dance," Henry said as he recalled his grandfather's story. "It was a moon-lit night and when they got to the cemetery [on their wagon], something spooked their horses ... then they heard something and thought they saw a white ghost in the center of the cemetery."
Laughing, Henry said the boys ran at least a quarter of a mile to his great-grandfather's home.
"They took off to my great-grandfather's house, which was the next house over and they woke up and told him [about the ghost]," Henry said. "He got up and they gathered the coonhounds and his rifles and shotguns and they went looking for this ghost. When they get there ... it turns out it was a goose stuck in the fence."
Henry said he holds on to stories like this and wants to preserve the church's history.
Anyone interested in sending off donations to go toward either the church's roof repairs or the cemetery is welcomed to call Henry at 501-358-2126.