Full of History

New Albany church was a stop on the Underground Railroad

New Albany is home to a great number of architectural wonders that have graced this riverfront town for decades – even centuries.

One landmark that residents take great pride in is the historic Second Baptist Church, known to many as the Town Clock Church. Not only is the building recognized for its beauty, but the church and its founding members also played a significant role in the history of our country. It was a stop on the historic Underground Railroad, which was a network of routes, places and individuals that helped enslaved people in the south escape to the north.

The church dates to the 19th century. It was first owned by the Second Presbyterian Church, with construction beginning in 1849 and completing in 1852, just nine years before the American Civil War.     

The church’s exterior is made of brick and is constructed in the Greek Revival style of architecture, which is inspired by the symmetry, proportion and simplicity of the ancient Greek temples of the 5th century B.C.

The church’s exterior is made of brick and is constructed in the Greek Revival style of architecture, which is inspired by the symmetry, proportion and simplicity of the ancient Greek temples of the 5th century B.C. The architect for the project was Isaac P. Smith, a church member and a master builder who designed many buildings in New Albany. Smith is known for such structures as the Joshua Bragdon House, the Montgomery-Cannon House and his own residence, the Isaac P. Smith House.

When owned by the Presbyterians, the church was one of a handful that opened its doors to a mixed-race congregation, yet not everyone was on board with the idea. On Dec. 10, 1889, an African American congregation purchased the building from the Second Presbyterian Church, and it became the Second Baptist Church.   

It’s no surprise that this building has endured its fair share of structural troubles during its 170-year existence.

The original church steeple was struck by lightning several times, but the biggest blow occurred on June 28, 1915, when a lightning strike split the steeple in two. The structure was removed two weeks later, and the clock tower was capped and replaced with a cupola.   

The church also suffered damage in the Great Flood of 1937. The undercroft, where freedom seekers found shelter from bounty hunters, was submerged, leaving behind a layer of mud and silt once the water had receded. The remnants of the silt and dirt still remain in the lower portion.

The church also suffered damage in the Great Flood of 1937. The undercroft, where freedom seekers found shelter from bounty hunters, was submerged, leaving behind a layer of mud and silt once the water had receded. The remnants of the silt and dirt still remain in the lower portion.

There were many times when the church faced being condemned, but thanks to the current leaders of the church, the Rev. LeRoy V. Marshall and his wife and church administrator, the Rev. Joyce Marshall, the building has been given a new life. During the past 10 years, the Marshalls have done a great deal to ensure that this iconic site could be restored and revitalized.

The Marshalls are from Bullitt County, Kentucky, and for years their home church was Ebenezer Missionary Baptist Church in Louisville. They were comfortable with their church and never dreamed of moving away from their friends and congregation. They became an integral part of the Second Baptist Church when LeRoy was offered the position of pastor in 2009. But this wasn’t something he pursued.   

“We were doing what we thought that God would have us to do, but we didn’t realize or understand that it was only a season, that he had other things for us to do.”

– Joyce Marshall

“We received a call to come over,” Joyce said, “and LeRoy was like, ‘Well, I don’t know… .’ We were doing what we thought that God would have us to do, but we didn’t realize or understand that it was only a season, that he had other things for us to do.”

Joyce says that they prayed and prayed, trying to understand what they needed to do. LeRoy visited the church a few times, and finally accepted the new position.

“We came over with not really knowing what he was going to face,” she said. “There were so many different things that needed attention, so that’s how I became the church administrator, to help him and the congregation to pull everything back together.”

Renovation on the church began in 2012. One of their first projects was to clean out the belfry. Hundreds of birds had made their home in the structure, leaving behind 4 to 5 inches of dung. The cost for the clean out process was estimated to be $12,000. Jerry Finn, who at the time was the president of the Caesars Foundation of Floyd County, and Irv Stumler, who was running for mayor, came on board to help the Marshalls and the church. Finn was the director of the 501(c)(3) foundation for the church, and Stumler took on the role of project manager for the renovation.

The church has come a long way in the past decade. What was once a building in disrepair is now a shining beacon.

The church has come a long way in the past decade. What was once a building in disrepair is now a shining beacon.

When you enter the church, you walk through double wooden doors, replicas of the original front doors. According to LeRoy, these doors cost $15,000 and were graciously donated by Pat Harris, a realtor who lives in the area. A small set of stairs takes you through the front hallway, where you will find identical rooms on either side. The room to the right is the reverend’s office, and the room to the left has been renovated into a fully functioning kitchen. They were originally used as reading rooms. “The Presbyterians were big on reading about Presbyterian life,” LeRoy said.

Heading down the hallway, you enter the lecture room, one of two sanctuaries in the church. Large, white, iron pillars are found throughout the room, and a wooden lectern, circa 1852, is centered on the pulpit.

Another sanctuary is located on the second floor, this one more ornate than the bottom-floor room. Visitors enter this room through one of two doors that showcase stained glass inserts. The 1852 glass windows were once part of the lower floor of the church. In the center of the sanctuary hangs a replica of the chandelier that once hung in the church. The original was a triple chandelier, but the one currently in the building is a single chandelier. According to LeRoy, it would have cost $65,000 to hang one as large as the original.

The pews in the upper sanctuary are also original to the building, but one noticeable feature is that the seats are divided.

“This partition is a sign of the times. Men sat on one side and women sat on the other,” LeRoy said.

Ornate tables and chairs grace the upper room as well, along with a magnificent organ that was also part of the original church. Unfortunately, the organ is not functional.

“It could be functional for about $230,000,” LeRoy said.

Heading outside to the back of the church, visitors will discover the beautiful Underground Railroad garden area. Many outstanding statues and structures adorn the garden, such as the gazebo that showcases the 100-year-old cupola that once sat atop the church after the original steeple was destroyed.

Heading outside to the back of the church, visitors will discover the beautiful Underground Railroad garden area. Many outstanding statues and structures adorn the garden, such as the gazebo that showcases the 100-year-old cupola that once sat atop the church after the original steeple was destroyed.

Next to the gazebo is a mosaic art piece honoring the enslaved people, which was constructed by the class of 2016 of New Albany High School. According to an article in the News and Tribune in 2018, the mosaic is based upon the artwork of Jacob Lawrence, an artist whose work depicted the Harlem Renaissance and Black history. The piece incorporates chains, the North Star and Harriet Tubman.

The church is open for regular services on Sundays, plus the community and school groups are welcome to book tours. The church is also seeking volunteers to help with various programs and to become docent guides. •

More information and history about the church can be found at townclockchurch.org or their Facebook page, Friends of the Town Clock Church.

 

Story by Julie Engelhardt

Photos by Michelle Hockman (except where noted)

 

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