Secrets of the Blue Ridge: Children’s Day at the Mountain Mission
By Phil James
“Momma,” I asked as a small fry many moons ago, “There’s a Mothers Day and a Fathers Day. Why isn’t there a Children’s Day?”
Never batting an eye, she replied, “Because every day is children’s day.”
One who spent a lifetime on that very premise was Frederick W. Neve. Introduced to a new generation by author Frances Shirley Scruby in her published biography Neve: Virginia’s Thousandfold Man, the much-revered Anglican Priest from the county of Kent, England, embraced his calling to young and old alike with an enduring faith and a passion exhibited by few.
Beginning his ministry to the Episcopal gentry at Ivy and Greenwood in 1888, the 33-year-old clergyman soon was called aside to address the need in Albemarle County’s isolated Ragged Mountains. Within two years of his arrival in the States, he saw the completion of a chapel in those hardscrabble foothills between Ivy and Miller School, and increased his parishes to three. A dozen years later his immediate parish responsibilities encompassed four churches at Ivy, Greenwood, Miller School and Crozet, plus a missionary outpost chapel erected south of Batesville. Still, he regularly was made aware of other areas in need of help and guidance, and more and more his gaze was directed toward the Blue Ridge Mountains.
By 1900, he already was sharing from the pulpit his vision for reaching out to the scattered inhabitants of the Blue Ridge by establishing church missions and schools every ten miles. An early foray with a fellow pastor into Greene County’s Shifflett Hollow and up to Simmons Gap convinced him that the needs were great. His earlier efforts of evangelism became redirected toward the dearth of educational opportunities among the children of the highlands and isolated hollows.
In The Southern Churchman, Neve advertised for a male teacher who would fill that remote outpost high atop Simmons Gap. The only applicant was Miss Angelina Fitzhugh, a minister’s daughter from Maryland. With great misgivings about the physical hardships and dangers she might face, he accompanied her to the mountaintop in November 1900. There was no schoolhouse and only a log cabin in much need of repair to provide her shelter from the elements as well as meeting space for her classes. Arriving back home, Neve wrote that he “felt like he had just been to a funeral when he left her there by herself.”
Unknown to the good Reverend at the time, soon after he left the mountain Miss Angelina’s closest neighbors Aunt America Jane (Sullivan) and Uncle Billy Garrison declared that the dilapidated little cabin “ain’t fit for a hog,” and they promptly moved the new teacher and her meager belongings into their own snug abode. Thereafter, they were among the Simmons Gap mission’s staunchest protectors and supporters. Thus was born of faith and determination the mountain mission work of Rev. F.W. Neve, a work to which he would be appointed Archdeacon of the Blue Ridge.
In addition to the three-R’s, the mountain students (ages ranged from three to 30) were schooled in geography, grammar and other subjects that would prepare them for “modern” life in the lowlands. Daily prayers and Bible study were also standard at these outposts, as the church’s mission was to develop the whole student: heart, soul and mind.
And the work grew. And grew. Through the years, young supporters gave pennies, clothing bureaus collected donations, and those of means donated funds for entire school and church buildings. Neve traveled the East Coast, pleading the needs of the mountain people, and asking teachers and church workers prayerfully to consider partnering in the cause.
A 1913 issue of Our Mountain Work, Neve’s newsletter to his supporters, enumerated 38 locations where the work was ongoing. The Archdeaconry of the Blue Ridge, during a half-century of labors, came to encompass the counties of Albemarle, Augusta, Fauquier, Greene, Loudoun, Page, Rockingham and Shenandoah.
Workers of the Archdeaconry, with the help of the mountain residents, cleared plots of land and erected schoolhouses, chapels, clothing bureaus, orphanages, hospitals, a Preventorium for the treatment of tuberculosis, and a full-fledged industrial school. While so doing, they also involved themselves in the lives of those whom they served as friends, confidants, encouragers, teachers, ministers and nurses.
In a diary he kept throughout his ministry, Rev. Neve noted in 1917, at age 61: “Motto—Pray without ceasing. Desire to be 1000 times more useful than ever before… Happy Day.” Others also claimed his motto for their own, and the ministry continued to expand until the 1930s when several circumstances changed.
Improved roads allowed motorized vehicles better access through the mountains. The Commonwealth assumed greater responsibility for the teaching of all of its children, not only those easily accessible. And an eastern national park was proposed, Shenandoah, bringing about the condemnation of private mountain lands by the State, and the subsequent removal of all residents on those lands.
Those who knew Neve noted that children were drawn to him. As the workers at his mission outposts gained the trust of the nearby families, many were drawn to the sacrificial spirits of those who willingly chose to live and minister among them. The often difficult lives of the children in those regions were eased by the hands-on caring practiced in their midst, and a generation of youth was offered the chance of a brighter future.
Beneath each masthead of Our Mountain Work newsletters was this Bible verse:
“How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him that bringeth good tidings.—Isaiah 52:7”
Might each of us desire to embrace that sacred text and, in so doing, become 1000 times more useful than ever before.
Follow Secrets of the Blue Ridge on Facebook! Phil James invites contact from those who would share recollections and old photographs of life along the Blue Ridge Mountains of Albemarle County. You may respond to him through his website: www.SecretsoftheBlueRidge.com or at P.O. Box 88, White Hall, VA 22987. Secrets of the Blue Ridge © 2003–2013 Phil James