As church changes, Miss Sugar is a constant

Gertrude Wiley, who will be 100 in April, sits in the sanctuary of St. Paul Missionary Baptist Church on Feb. 29.
Gertrude Wiley, who will be 100 in April, sits in the sanctuary of St. Paul Missionary Baptist Church on Feb. 29.

McCONNELLS -- When St. Paul's Missionary Baptist Church parishioners think about faithfulness, they think of Miss Sugar, the little woman peering down at them from the choir loft, wearing a wide smile and an even wider hat.

On Sunday, members of the little country church outside McConnells will celebrate its 124th anniversary.

When they do, they'll also honor Gertrude Wiley, whom they've known so long as Miss Sugar that no one knows how she got the name. They guess it's because of her sweet spirit.

Miss Sugar will turn 100 on April 22. She's spent more Sundays in the pews of the church than any other person.

They were simple board pews when she sat as an infant in the original building, built in 1885. Miss Sugar's father, Gully Kirkpatrick, was one of the founding members. That old building is still there but has since been renovated and expanded and is used as a fellowship hall.

Services were held only once a month when Miss Sugar was a child, but they would last for hours.

Every summer, the church would host a week of revival services. The members carried their food in shoe boxes to share at the church and spent the day listening to music and sermons, Miss Sugar said.

Revivals aren't like that anymore.

"No, Lord, they sure ain't," she attests.

As a girl, Miss Sugar went to St. Paul's Church School behind the church.

Children from the community began attending classes when they turned 7, and classes were held for grades one through four.

Miss Sugar remembers gathering wood to burn in the school's stove. The students cooked long, skinny sweet potatoes in the ashes, and everybody would ask for part of hers. With potatoes not much thicker than a quarter, there wasn't much to divide.

Because most students had to help with the cotton, school was in session only in July, August, December, January and February.

Miss Sugar had wanted to go to high school and even had her clothes laid out ready to attend, but her mother took sick shortly before, and she ended up taking care of her younger siblings instead.

"I was the boss," she said.

She was just 12.

Faithful attendance

Miss Sugar later married Wardell Wiley of Chester. He attended a different church, but even marriage ties weren't strong enough to break her bond with St. Paul's. Every Sunday, she would have him drop her off before he went to his church, and he would pick her up on his way back.

They did that for years until the church started sending a van around to pick up people who couldn't drive themselves to church.

At her age, Miss Sugar's energy level isn't always the highest, said her great-niece, Najah Sabree. But every Sunday, she'll be dressed and ready to wait for the van.

"She's faithful in all her doings," said Luveria Curry, church clerk. "I'm 55, and sometimes I struggle to get here. She's here every Sunday."

Each week, she wears one of the hundreds of hats she owns. She's been wearing hats to church as long as she can remember and is always looking for a new one to wear.

"If she sees one she likes and you've got it on, she's going to get that hat," Curry said. "We're crazy enough to give it to her."

Miss Sugar says all she has to do is ask.

It's practically a foolproof strategy.

"I'll put it on whether it'll fit or not," Miss Sugar said.

"Nobody can wear a hat like Miss Sugar," Curry affirms.

A church family

Miss Sugar never had any biological children, but throughout her life, she's found many to treat as her own.

The first was her nephew William, whom she carried to the cotton fields in a sack on her back.

More recently, she's come to consider Bobby Featherstone, St. Paul's pastor, her son.

"I asked your mother for you," Miss Sugar told him when he came. "You're my boy."

Featherstone was 27 then. Over the last 21 years, Miss Sugar has continued to treat him like a son, listening carefully to all his sermons and traveling with him whenever he goes away to preach.

"Whether I preach in North Carolina, Virginia or wherever, she tries to be there," Featherstone said.

Nobody is allowed to say anything bad about him in her presence.

"Hush up. Go on outdoors," she'll say as soon as anyone starts to say something negative about him.

Changes through the years

Church services at St. Paul's are now held in a new building with brick walls and padded pews. The music and the services are both more contemporary, and the handful of founding members has grown into a true congregation with about 300 people there each Sunday.

Although Miss Sugar would prefer old hymns to modern music, she has participated in and helped pay for the changes.

"I scraped my pocketbook trying to get something to help pay for this church," she said.

While she loves the new building, that doesn't mean she didn't like the old building.

"I could go to it right now, sit there and listen," she said.

But as she's grown older, she has tried to keep up with the change, she said.

"I'm keeping up with the style," she said.

Amid the change, her hats and her presence have been constants.

"She's not a person who changes," Featherstone said. "What you see today is her."