There was only one other Church-owned building in Alabama in 1914 when long-time Southern States Mission President Charles A. Callis (who served from 1908-1933), dedicated a one-room clapboard chapel near the tiny town of Magnolia. The building was constructed and funded by some of the earliest Church members in the state, with the help of some of their non-LDS neighbors and two full-time missionaries from Utah.
Today, the bright white building with a shiny new metal roof and a sparkling renovated interior still stands proudly amid woods and farmland, a testament to the sacrifice and courage of early Latter-day Saints who accepted the gospel in what is still a rural area of the state, 96 miles southwest of Montgomery.
At a recent centennial celebration, over 250 Latter-day Saints, along with many friends and neighbors, gathered on a typical sultry Alabama summer day to remember the sacrifice and faith of the early Saints of Magnolia.
The old chapel could hold only a portion of the celebrants, with most listening to the two-hour meeting of testimonies and remembrances seated under a white tent outside. Both those outside in the humid, 90-degree heat and those inside the un-air-conditioned building did their best to keep cool with traditional hand-held “church” fans emblazoned with a photo of the historic and beloved structure.
Speaking to the gathering, Eloise Harbin told of her days in the old Magnolia chapel more than 60 years ago and before a modern brick meetinghouse took its place in the early 1970s. The historic record shows that in the 1940s and early 1950s there were times when no priesthood brethren existed in the branch. It was then that Sister Harbin and other sisters ensured that Sunday School and youth meetings were held, even when the little branch was unable to conduct sacrament services due to the dearth of priesthood holders.
She told of the pioneers of the branch she knew in her youth. “I’m so thankful for them,” she said as she noted the resting place of many of them in the little cemetery that lies just outside the chapel.
Michael Sealy continued the many tributes to the women of the branch in its early days. He told of a time 53 years ago when there was a surge of teens in the branch. “We had 17 youth at that time, nine of whom are here today, and it was our mothers who were our inspiration and the heart of the branch back then.”
Another early member of the branch is Winston Stockman, now a temple sealer. “Like so many here today, I was baptized in nearby Goose Creek,” he recalled. The record shows that by 1953, Brother Stockman served as a teenage Sunday School superintendent. “This is where I got my start in the Church,” he said.
Johnnie Martin, now stake patriarch of the Birmingham Alabama Stake, reminisced on his youth in the 1940s when his father was branch president at Magnolia. He pointed to a little white wooden table to the left of the podium and with deep emotion recalled those years.
“I blessed the sacrament at that table many times,” he said.
As the old Magnolia chapel enters its second hundred years, it is in the good hands of descendants of the branch’s early pioneers. They now own and care for the building and the cemetery under the non-profit Magnolia Branch Cemetery Association.
Said Johnny Martin of the chapel and cemetery that many of the members still call sacred, “When it’s my time to leave this earth, I’ll be buried in the Magnolia Branch Cemetery alongside my parents and grandparents, who helped sustain this little branch and its wonderful old chapel.”