In September 1885 the Rev. Milnor Jones, an itinerant Episcopal preacher who came from South Carolina to preach and baptize in Henderson and Polk counties, was invited by a family living on the Eastern Continental Divide to hold a service on the front porch of their log house. That was the first Episcopal service held in the Edneyville area.
In 1885 A.W. Whiteside and his wife, Elmira, deeded two acres of land to the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina where a church could be built. Jones, who was a deacon, continued to visit the congregation regularly.
By the time the Missionary District of Asheville was established in 1895 the congregation of St. Paul’s was already worshipping in a small wooden church modeled on the lines of an overgrow and top-heavy barn standing on rock pillars and often accommodating as many as 100 persons. The congregation was called to worship by a locomotive bell which is still used today. The altar was a rough wooden box. Snow often had to be brushed from the altar before a service could be held. Sometimes the altar had to be moved because rain was leaking through the roof onto it.
For many years the rector of St. James church in Hendersonville rode horseback or in a buggy to serve the little mission.
A number of families have kept the church together: the Whitesides, Lydas, Freemans, Ledbetters, Flacks, Haydocks, and Hudginses. Today their descendants, even to the third, fourth and fifth generation, are still mainstays of the church.
Services were irregular until the Rev. Reginald N. Willcox, a transplanted Englishman, came in 1902 to serve St. James and the Henderson County missions. There were three: Edneyville, Upward and Bowman’s Bluff. When Willcox left in 1917 there were five missions and two preaching stations.
Willcox held services every other Sunday evening in Edneyville, but was available to minister to his flock at other times, especially times when illness or death struck.
Because he saw a need for education in the area (the nearest public school at that time was a considerable distance away and open only four months of the year), Willcox determined to start a school.
The first need was for a building: the people undertook that project themselves. But there was no money for a teacher, so Willcox went to more affluent areas to preach about the need and by 1905 there was enough money to hire a teacher and the school opened. It was open to anyone in the community, no matter his denomination, and many adults attended, too. The teachers lived at the home of the Andy Lydas (Lyda later was inspired to build Bee Hive Inn, which he first named Bee Palace Inn). The school operated from seven to nine months of the year, depending on how much money was available to pay the teachers. Three months of every year, Willcox preached in the North to raise the money. Soon there was enough money to operate three more schools: Upward, Slick Rock and Bat Cave.
In 1907 a great wind twisted the roof of the old wooden church, causing it to leak in many places. After studying books on English architecture Willcox himself designed a new church building to be constructed of stone. He also designed the altar, which was carved by one of his friends, Frank Geddies, a sculptor of Dorchester, Mass. It was sent by rail to Hendersonville, then, somewhat like the Ark of the Covenant in the days of King David, brought the rest of the way by ox cart. There was no paved road to Edneyville then. St. George’s Episcopal Church gave the money for the baptismal font. Then Bishop Paul Mathews gave money for a mission house. As for the first church and the school, the members of the congregation, helped by others in the community, did the actual construction.
Bishop Julius M. Horner dedicated the new stone church Sept. 8, 1910.
The little church continued to grow. In 1922 the Rev. Herbert Cary-Elwes, also from England, came to the mountains for his health and stayed as a resident pastor for six years. He retired in 1928 to Saluda, leaving the little flock to struggle along without a shepherd. They succeeded in staying together with lay services and an occasional Eucharist.
Among Episcopal clergymen who came to St. Paul’s to help were the Rev. James B. Sill and the Rev. Edgar R. Neff, both of Calvary in Fletcher, the Rev. James P. Burke of St. James came to hold services from 1937 to 1942.
In 1940 the Episcopal Women of the diocese provided money for Aline Cronshey to come to St. Paul’s as a United Thank Offering worker. She also served the church in Bat Cave, and lived there until the mission house in Edneyville was refurbished, when she moved into it. She stayed until 1954, inspiring the women to start a new parish hall.
The women themselves did much of the construction work on the hall, laying the floor and adding the siding.
“All the men where needed for was to help lift the rafter,” one account said.
She organized sewing groups and classes in religious education, and helped in illness and other crises. During that time the Rev. Mark Jenkins, rector of Calvary Episcopal, came to hold services at St. Paul’s.
A Series of priests served the church between 1954 and 1961. Then Bishop Matthew Henry assigned Floyd W. Finch, a lay reader, to take charge of the church, with Jenkins coming once a month to celebrate the Eucharist. Finish encouraged the congregation to greater efforts, and they responded, repairing the parish house whose rough oak panels had shrunk, allowing the wind to whistle through; then raising the money to build a new brick rectory. The house was finished in 1964 and dedicated to Cronshey, who came back to see the plaque in her honor unveiled.
In 1966 the Rev. Welch K. Tester came to St. Paul’s; he and his family were the first to occupy the new rectory. He stayed for 10 years, also teaching at Edneyville School, and the congregation grew. An extension was built onto the parish house during his tenure.
In the periods the church was without a priest, many lay readers and seminarians, carried on the work. For example, Brownlow Blackwell carried on as lay reader for 20 years. Many others, too numerous to name, also carried on the work.
In December 1980 the Rev. Jack Lee Watson became the priest-in-charge at St. Paul’s. He is a native of Cedar Key, Fla., and studied at Florida State University and the University of the South, Sewanee, Tenn. He first served St. Mark’s in Chattahoochee, Fla., then the Church of the Messiah and St. Barnabas, both in Murphy, and the Church of the Good Shepherd in Hayesville. While in Murphy he and Teri Bardenwerper of Atlanta were married. He next went to the Church of Epiphany in Laurens, S.C.
The little congregation has continued to grow, with summer visitors adding to the numbers attending. In 1984 St. Paul’s became a full-fledged parish.