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Local resident praying she can save former DeValls Bluff Catholic church

Building that was St. Elizabeth Church is cited for architectural and cultural significance

Published: September 24, 2011   
Phyllis Hemann
Mary Sharp stands at the doors of St. Elizabeth Catholic Church in DeValls Bluff, which closed in 1986. Sharp hopes to restore the building she purchased from the diocese in 1992, but needs help to "do it right."

DeVALLS BLUFF -- St. Elizabeth Church in DeValls Bluff stands simply as a testament to the Catholic faith, even though it closed in 1986.

The simple wooden structure at the corner of Sycamore and Mason in DeValls Bluff was built in 1912, after the original church from 1904 was damaged beyond repair in a storm.

Gone are the parishioners, the echoes of music drifting in the air from Sunday Mass, the pews and the cross from the steeple. But St. Elizabeth's still stands.

It's leaning to the side; it's weathered wooden planks show through the remaining cracked and peeling white paint; its windows are boarded up to protect the remaining opaque glass; and the exterior received a beating during the storms in April 2011, wind damaging parts of the structure -- although the first line of defense for a historic property, the roof, is "amazingly still holding."

But the former St. Elizabeth Church is a piece of Arkansas history worth saving, according to Vanessa Norton McKuin, executive director of the Historic Preservation Alliance of Arkansas. The alliance began a list of Arkansas' "Most Endangered" properties in 1999. St. Elizabeth was named to the 2011 list.

"The list is a way to raise awareness of different properties around the state that are in danger of being lost. Properties stay on the list until something happens -- good or bad, McKuin said. "These places are part of the historic fabric of our state."

Alliance members and the public submit names of buildings and historic properties that they feel are vulnerable.

"It takes resources to maintain historic properties. (The owner has) done a great job doing what she can do. If something is not done soon, the harder and harder it is to bring it around," McKuin said.

St. Elizabeth Church in DeValls Bluff is considered a "Plain-Traditional or Carpenter Gothic-style structure," much of which was probably built by parishioners themselves with the help of some non-Catholics in the area.

"The owner is in love with that church and is adamant about trying to save it," McKuin said.

Mary Sharp of DeValls Bluff grew up across the street from the church. She never knew that one day she would own the church itself and become an advocate for saving a part of DeValls Bluff's history.

Sharp bought the church from the Diocese of Little Rock in 1992. Her mother still lived across the street and could keep it safe from vandals.

Her grandson mowed the grass for the diocese, and Sharp found out it was about to go up for sale when they told his mother that he wouldn't need to mow the grass after a certain date.

"I took a chance and they sold it to me," Sharp said.

While not a Catholic, Sharp has a love of the Catholic faith. She even attended Mass at St. Elizabeth with a friend. She also began studying to become a Catholic in high school.

She fell in love with the boy next door when he was home visiting from the Air Force. When she told him that she was going to become Catholic, he said a resounding "no."

"I loved him and wanted to be his wife, so I gave up the idea of becoming Catholic," Sharp said.

The two were married 64 years ago. After their daughter was born, Sharp began attending the Methodist church. Both Sharp and her daughter are Methodist.

"In some way, I think it was meant to be. I own that church and I still believe in it, and that's a good thing," Sharp said.

Her goal is to restore it to "church facilities," and maybe have weddings there for those who want a religious service, but don't have their own church.

"If the Catholic Church wanted to have services, I'd let them have it in a minute. But I wouldn't want to see something there that wasn't good. I wouldn't let that happen."

Sharp knows of one Catholic still in DeValls Bluff, but said he travels to Slovak to attend Mass.

She worked for two years to get the church listed on Arkansas' Historic Register. She also championed its cause for the National Register of Historic Places.

"When I acquired it, some people wanted to take it away. They wanted the city to condemn it, but they didn't. People are so happy that I didn't tear it down. I believe in it and want it to remain a part of DeValls Bluff. Despite our differences, we're still proud of our little town. We work together for DeValls Bluff."

A resident historian of sorts, Sharp knows much of the history of DeValls Bluff, which played a role in the Civil War in Arkansas.

Her love of history led her to fight for help to save this piece of history, one of the few remaining Grand Arkansas Prairie churches.

"It has significance in the regional history. It was developed for the German and Eastern Europeans who were settling in the area. It also has architectural significance. It was influenced by German architecture," McKuin said.

Sharp is working closely with the alliance to figure out what needs to be done and how to go about stabilizing the building itself.

"The surface needs protection. Water will eventually take its course and lead to rot and deterioration. The doorway and trim has pulled away. It's been sitting empty for years. We help provide technical assistance in determining what the priorities are for stabilizing it and then preserving it down the road," McKuin said. "It is a simple building, but an important piece of the puzzle."

Sharp is the best advocate St. Elizabeth could have, McKuin said.

"I was born in Biscoe. There's nothing left of the original city of Biscoe. There are some homes left. It puts a lump in my throat when I go there and look for the old hotel or for anything that is a part of our history," Sharp said. "I don't want this to happen to my church. I have a feeling that this was meant to be -- for me to save my little church in DeValls Bluff."


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