Text and photos by Connie Leinbach
If you’re in a hurry on your way westward out of Swan Quarter in Hyde County, you might miss a historical marker that describes a local “miracle.”
This marker, at the intersection of N.C. 45 and U.S. 264, highlights the Providence Methodist Church that was “moved by the hand of God.”
Today, the little wooden church is attached behind the newer brick church at the corner of Main and Church streets.
According to a 1982 brochure by the historical committee of the church, its story goes back to 1874 when members of the Methodist faith in Swan Quarter decided it was time to abandon the temporary place where they had been holding services and to seek a location for their own church.
The leader Benjamin Griffin Credle and his committee picked out a site for a church on the highest spot in the heart of town.
They approached the owner of the lot, Sam Sadler, one-time clerk of Hyde County Superior Court, and asked to purchase the land, but Sadler declined to sell.
The Methodists then accepted a gift of a lot offered by James W. Hayes, which was about 1,000 feet behind the present courthouse, and a short time later, building began. When the church, a modest structure on brick piers, was barely enclosed, people began to worship in it. At that time, it was the Methodist Episcopal Church South.
Then, on September 16, 1876, on the eve of the dedication of the church, a storm began to brew and turned into a tempest.
What happened after that is told in an affidavit given by Mrs. Lelia Brinn, an eyewitness, to P.G. Gallop in 1939.
Brinn was born and reared in Swan Quarter and lived into the 1950s. Gallop was superintendent of Hyde County schools from 1935 to 1941 and president of the first Hyde County Chamber of Commerce.
According to Brinn, rain fell and wind blew until the morning of September 17, 1876.
As often happens when hurricanes strike the region, floodwaters rose quickly from the sound and creeks surrounding Swan Quarter.
The water rose that day to five feet or more and dislodged the little Methodist church from its location into the road, now called Oyster Creek Road.
The building floated down the road to the corner of Oyster Creek Road and U.S. 264 Business, or Main Street.
Then, it took a sharp right turn and headed down Main Street for about two city blocks until it reached the corner of what is now Church Street.
Then it moved slightly off its course, took another turn to the left, crossed the Carawan Canal directly in front of the place where the people had originally desired the church to be and settled in the center of the Sadler property, the site which had been refused.
“The man who owned the lot went to the courthouse the next day or when they could and said, ‘Okay, I’ll sell it.’” said Sandra Tunnell, who lives down the road a bit from the church. “Some people said a church can’t move, but it wasn’t on any type of foundation, just sitting on some pilings.”
Originally designated the Methodist Episcopal Church South, it was later renamed Providence United Methodist Church — a tribute to what members considered divine intervention.
After the brick church was finished in 1913, the original chapel became a fellowship hall and place for Sunday school classes.
“It’s been gutted,” Tunnell said of the brick building, and though it was most recently used as a place to house United Methodist Committee on Relief, it remains empty.
The church in 1976 celebrated its 100th anniversary, she said.
“We had a big service with past members and pastors,” she said, “and women wore dresses of 1876.”
In 1999, Hurricane Floyd flooded the town, again damaging the church. The congregation of about 50 made extensive repairs, Tunnell said.
Hurricane Isabel again flooded the village and the church in 2003.
“We were done after that and quit having church there,” she said, and the parishioners joined with Soule United Methodist Church across from Mattamuskeet High School.
After Isabel, Molasses Creek, Ocracoke’s contemporary folk music band, performed some concerts there in a goodwill effort called “Music Across the Sound,” band leader Gary Mitchell said.
He immortalized the incident in a song titled “Moved By the Hand of God.”
It’s a jaunty little tune, telling the story of the waterborne church and how the owner of the desired plot of land says, “It’s gonna take a miracle for me to let it go.”
Let it go he did, though the miracle was not without a downside.
“Water brought it to us,” Tunnell said about the Providence Church, “and water took it away.”