Growth may threaten old church Options to ease traffic flow include possibility of a new intersection at the site of Massey's Chapel

By ADAM HATCH The Herald-Sun
The Herald-Sun
Sunday, April 16, 2000

Just down the road from where the cornerstone will be laid for southern Durham's new mall, a white country church sits at the crossroads of progress.

Massey's Chapel United Methodist Church sits squarely before a wave of development sweeping through this part of the county, where tradition sometimes falls victim to the needs of the now.

Founded when the United States was a mere 80 years old, Massey's Chapel has stood amid the once seemingly endless forests and scattered farms of southern Durham County.

As the years went by, trees were cut down, houses sprang up and an interstate highway plowed its wide swath less than half a mile away.

But the church has remained an anchor for the community, a piece of the past painted white with neatly trimmed shrubs beside busy Fayetteville Road.

Nearly every month, the picturesque sanctuary with its wooden pews provides an idyllic backdrop for weddings. The small gravel parking lot, however, is more than ample for worshippers' cars each Lord's day. The congregation of about 25 assembles from as far away as Person County, many of them having done so for generations.

Now, the demand for new roads to connect hundreds of new neighbors to their jobs and the mall could threaten Massey's Chapel.

At dawn each day, Research Triangle Park commuters avoiding Interstate 40 traffic jams stream east on Massey Chapel Road, zigging a few hundred feet north on Fayetteville before zagging eastward again on Barbee Road, opposite the chapel's front doors. At sundown, the tide reverses.

A consultant hired by Durham city and county to develop long-range plans for southern Durham has suggested connecting Barbee and Massey Chapel roads to streamline the flow. Like fixing a broken bone, the two ends must be snapped into alignment. On that spot sits the chapel.

The church eventually may need to move, or its purpose may change, said Dick Paton, landscape architect with Paton-Zucchino Associates of Raleigh, the firm hired to do the study.

Paton is the leader of a group putting together a planning proposal that would provide guidelines for growth and development south of the Streets at Southpoint mall.

Last week, in public meetings about future development, Paton suggested the church could be transformed into a community center or meeting place. He was not even sure if church services were still held there.

Members were hopping mad that their church would be reduced, as they saw it, to a mere roadblock to be tossed aside.

"They told me that those folks didn't think there were any services there anymore," said Annie King, in her mid-80s, the church's oldest member. "You don't have to have 200 people to be a church. Jesus said wherever two or three are gathered in my name, I'll be there, too."

King's father was superintendent of the church's Sunday school back in the 1930s, and she became a member in 1926 at age 10.

"My husband and mother and daddy are buried behind this church," she said. "I've moved away from the neighborhood, but I told everyone when I went that my membership would stay at the little church by the road at Massey's."

Many in the church have worried for years that the chapel might be threatened, King said. "Once, they told us they were going to widen Fayetteville Road, and who knows what will happen with that?" she said. "Now this is a real shock. If something like they're saying were to happen, it would feel just like you killed someone."

Paton said displacing the chapel for a road connector hasn't been seriously considered, but the area needs a new or improved east-west route somewhere nearby.

"Things down there are going to be very different and soon, for always," he said. "But some things aren't going to be feasible, and putting a road through the church seems unlikely now."

The desires of the congregation must be taken into consideration today, but Paton said he would be surprised if the facility remained a church.

"If it makes it another 20 years, I'll be surprised," he said. "The congregation is just getting older."

City transportation officials said they were also looking at alternatives to running a road through the church property.

"Moving through a church is difficult to do," said Mark Ahrendsen, city transportation manager. "One of the other alternatives to look at was extending Renaissance Parkway between Fayetteville and N.C. 751 and connect it east to Barbee Road farther north of the church."

But that option also carries some undesirable side effects, Ahrendsen said. Most notably, it would also go through another stretch of private property north of Barbee Road.

Yet another plan would create an east-west connector between Scott King and Hopson roads, just north of the Chatham County line. But that might be too far south to bring much relief, Ahrendsen said.

So using the church property hasn't been forgotten as an option. In fact, its presence was noted with some concern on many proposed roadway improvement maps.

Wherever it is built, the connector will parallel and help relieve traffic-clogged I-40 and N.C. 54 and create easier access to the mall from points west and south, he said.

"Clearly, the level of development will dictate what we have to do down there," Ahrendsen said. "This is another way to serve the immediate vicinity of the mall area. But there are consequences and impacts that have to be considered, and I'm not sure the community can support options that affect the church."

The church's history is too long and distinguished to contemplate such an ignoble end, said Vann Spivey, the pastor. Its very name connects it to when the area was first settled.

"Families would establish churches nearby where they lived, and it would be named after them," Spivey said.

The church was organized Sept. 14, 1856, with five members - three Masseys, a Herndon and a Cates. It initially held no regular Sunday service and met only once a month, on a weekday. Without a pastor, the church offered no preaching or Sunday school.

But by 1869, a University of North Carolina-educated minister, R.S. Webb, served as pastor. He was respected by all, even though "he had known little hardship," according to J. Frank Elliott, church historian.

But the Civil War had left Webb poor and, having no horse, he was forced to make his rounds to church families on foot.

The church experienced many of the growing pains of small churches, including membership breakups and even times when no one was available to say words over members' graves.

But even before the turn of the last century, the church was growing, as the Hunters, Duhlins, Bordeauxs, Youngs and Copleys joined the rolls.

The church has passed down through the hands of at least 20 pastors since then.

Today, it holds services every Sunday, and Spivey splits his duties between it and Parkwood Methodist Church.

Legally, any proposed road improvements will have more than just church members to deal with. The church's land title is held by the N.C. Annual Conference, a group of state Methodist churches.

"This is not an independent congregation," Spivey said. "We are part of a much larger whole."

That the chapel could cease to serve the congregation that cherishes it is frightening but not out of the blue, he said.

"It doesn't surprise me that this is being considered," Spivey said. "The power of the almighty dollar rules this world. The developer's dollar is becoming more important than other things."

Read more about development problems facing Southern Durham County.

Contact Massey's Chapel via email.
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