St. Mary’s Chapel

 

St. Mary’s Episcopal Chapel at Laurel hill Plantation

Adams County, MS | c. 1838

You would have to travel far and wide to find a historic building that compares to this church in the Mississippi woods.

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This one-of-a-kind gothic style church is adorned with spires and an iron cross on the outside and impressive fixtures on the interior as well, including a massive glass window rosette. A unique marble floor and incredible word work reflect the exterior marvel of this place. The plantation home it belonged to burned in the 1960s leaving this church as the one of a few reminders of an expansive operation that is long gone. 

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In the 1760s, Richard Ellis, his wife Mary Cocke, and family moved from Virginia to Point Coupee Parish, Louisiana to settle a land grant they received from the King of Spain. After 3 consecutive years of flooding, Ellis, his family, their servants, and belongings were loaded aboard a flat boat and they made their way up the Mississippi until they spotted a site they deemed ideal about 12 miles south of Natchez on the cliffs overlooking the river. Ellis set up an initial homesite as several of his family members, as well as other wealthy landowners, began to settle nearby.

After a few years, it was time to select a better homesite and Ellis selected an ideal spot atop a rolling hill that was lined with 14 magnolias. He would name it Laurel Hill. The first building on this new site was constructed by 1775 and the original plantation home had three large rooms and galleries all the way around. Servants quarters were built to the south and east of the home.

As the Ellis family grew, some of their daughters married, but would stay on property- contributing their own stories and adaptations to the plantation over time. When Ellis passed away on November 6, 1792, at the age of 60., his daughter, Mary Ellis Farar had married Capt. Benjamin Farar and took the reins over Laurel Hill. Until the Summer of 1820 when Mrs. Farar with her children and other family members traveled to the Gulf Coast and contracted Yellow Fever. They would all succumb, except for one daughter, Anna. During this time, Anna was aided by a U.S. Navy surgeon named Dr. William Newton Mercer and just a short time, they were married on June 2, 1823. It was time for a new generation to take the helm at Laurel Hill and Dr. Mercer proved more than capable of the job. Under his supervision, the plantation is said to have become the most productive it had been.

But Mrs. Mercer became affected by tuberculosis and her health suffered greatly for much of her life. The Mercer’s had 2 daughters, Mary (who died at 11) and Anna. Anna the younger also suffered from the illness which plagued her mother.

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Dr. Mercer and his family took trips to Europe to try to find respite from their ails with little result. On one trip abroad, they gathered antiques and designs from architects to build a memorial chapel at Laurel Hill where Mrs. Mercers family would be memorialized. The construction of the chapel began while they were still away, and while we don’t know who designed the chapel, we know the carpenter and contractor was a Mr. Hardie of Natchez. St. Mary's Episcopal Chapel was built with brick made by slave labor under the direction of Henry Huntington, Dr. Mercer's overseer. It is a brick building, stucco-covered with a gothic spire made of iron.

The floor is tessellated white and black marble. Built between 1836-39, it was consecrated on April 28, 1839 by Rev. James Otey.

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The Mercers again traveled to Europe but Mrs. Mercer’s health became an increasing concern and she returned home to Laurel Hill early. She would pass away two weeks later. Dr. Mercer invited a young cousin to come to live at Laurel Hill to raise young Anna in the loss of her mother. Anna was well looked after and doted on, but she fell ill as her mother had and died at the age of 19. After her death, her father made fewer visits to Laurel Hill, spending much of his time at his other properties in New Orleans and elsewhere. Dr. Mercer shut off the rooms west of the parlor which had been used by his wife and daughter. They remained closed and locked for almost 30 years.

The Rev. Daniel H. Deacon was the first rector of St. Mary’s in 1842, who reported that the prinicipal charge of his work was ‘the colored people’ who lived at Laurel Hill. That same year, his records indicate that 118 slaves were baptized here in 1842 and another 26 in 1843. There was likely never a large congregation here, although during its years of operations, nearby plantation families (many of whom were Episcopalian) would’ve been in attendance. The Rev. Thomas Savage was probably the last resident rector, being there in 1845 because by 1854, a journal states that ‘the parish has been for nearly five years unoccupied.’

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The chancel floor, of dark wood with a heavy carved railing separating the nave, is raised about eighteen inches above the common level of the nave, and under the chancel is a brick vault in which the bodies of the Mercer women have been placed. The site was a cemetery before 1837 for the Ellis family and surrounding neighbors.

Since he had originally received most of the property from his wife’s side, Dr. Mercer left the property to the nearest relation, Mrs. Nancy Ellis Butler and her children and by 1910, Laurel Hill soon came to be owned by Pierce Butler. The main plantation house was burned in 1967, leaving some remaining dependencies (a brick kitchen, barns, and storage buildings) from the original compound, as well as this remarkable church thats rests near the site where Laurel Hill stood for nearly 200 years.

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**This church is on private property and accessible by private appointment only. It is also open for public tours twice a year- in March and October. Please message me and I will do my best to get you whatever information I can!** 

kelly@theforgottensouth.com