A sweet, smooth spirit in Verona

VERONA – At the center of a town a local newspaper once referred to in its infancy as “a delightful village on the Mamp&O Railroad” sits a church that began meeting when states waged war on one another, and when the landscape of Northeast Mississippi was still primitive and wild.
Verona Methodist held its first gathering six years before Lee County was carved out of portions of Itawamba and Pontotoc counties.
Not long after the Chickasaw tribe was forced to move west, South Carolina transplant William Porter and his neighbors built a log cabin in what was then Pontotoc County, one mile west of the present site of Verona. They called the church Smyrna, after the place where they worshiped in their home state.
By 1860 the little church was known as the Smuderman Church, and that year it moved into town when John Stovall Ratliff bought the land where Verona now sits and gave the congregation a lot on the corner of Cobb and Main streets.
At the turn of the 20th century the church again relocated to its present home on the corner of College and Main streets.
One of the best indicators of Verona Methodist’s age is the fusty, endearing language the Tupelo Standard used in 1873 to describe both the young town and the congregation’s seventh minister.
“Dr. T.C. Weir is the efficient and valued pastor,” it says. “He preaches every Sabbath, morning and night, to large and attentive crowds. As a regular preacher, he has few or no superiors.”
The paper goes on to describe the church’s “Sabbath school.”
“Hundreds of children of all ages are pointed to the Lamb of God, and taught to love and adore King Immanuel,” the paper says. “The schools, with the blessing of heaven, will be nurseries of piety …”
A white frame church, erected in 1901 on the corner of College and Main and renovated in 1943, served as the congregation’s home until it was replaced by the present structure in 1966.
When the Methodist Church merged with the Evangelical United Brethren in 1968, the congregation became Verona United Methodist Church, and from 1972 until 1986 the church served as the town’s only kindergarten.
Personal history
To borrow a biblical image, over a century and a half the faces of church members commingle into a cloud of witnesses. Some of them stand out, because of exceptional service or an endearing personality.
Winnie Wharton was one of them. Wharton’s service as a schoolteacher in Verona spanned half the 20th century, and members of Verona United Methodist still remember her as the mother of the church.
“She had an old Nash Rambler, and when it rained she wouldn’t drive it,” Jimmy Stephens, a lifetime church member, said with a laugh. He remembered Wharton as a fine musician, and as the secretary of the Sunday school. The church’s library is named in her honor.
In age, Stephens’ parents are the church’s oldest members.
When Clara Stephens and her husband, James, joined in 1967, some 150 members filled the pews each Sunday. Today that number is around 35, and despite Clara’s fond memories of ice-cream socials and fifth Sunday suppers, it’s been hard for her to watch the gradual decline in membership.
Verona United Methodist today is a little smaller than a lot of churches, and a little older, but the senior pastor doesn’t see that as a problem.
“There’s a smooth spirit,” said the Rev. Dennis Fink, a native of South Dakota who came to Verona three years ago.
“This is the sweetest church I’ve ever led,” he added. “Folks here are old enough to know there are some things not worth getting upset about. It’s like walking into grandma’s house.”
According to Fink, there are advantages to having an older congregation, like a reassuring consistency in tithing, as well as in attendance and participation in church work days.
“Every week men just show up and mow the lawn,” Fink said, laughing.
Sunday beginning at 10:30 a.m., Verona United Methodist will celebrate with a special choral presentation, as well as a visit from at least one former pastor, the Rev. Harold D. Robinson, who led the congregation from 1976 to 1985. There will also be a special lunch, and a lot of good, old fashioned fellowship.
Fink maintains a sense of humor about the age of his congregation, and he takes pleasure in the homey, old Southern atmosphere. “I’m just a kid around here,” said the 69-year-old Fink, laughing. “When you walk in here, you’re family.”
Contact Galen Holley at (662) 678-1510 or galen.holley@djournal.com.

Galen Holley/NEMS Daily Journal