1883 - 1947?
By Carol Saul Gromer
The October 9, 1883, edition of the Bridgeton Evening News reported the following under news from Middletown: Middleton, October 9, 1883. —Our church at this place is enclosed and will soon be ready for the masons.
Middletown was the former name of North Port Norris, NJ. The little town is located approximately two and a half miles north of Port Norris and a mile and a half from Haleyville. Today only a few houses remain to mark the location. In the early 20th century, things were very different.
Bridgeton Evening News article dated January 20, 1887.
“Many people think North Port Norris is a very still place but we think if they were here a short time they would be convinced that it’s more lively than some other larger places.
There was a grand reception given to Mr. Daniel Dilks, Saturday evening. He had been to the city a few days and on his return, his residence was all illuminated with the golden lights, his many friends, with their cornets were ready to greet and welcome him back.”
North Port Norris had three stores, an elementary school and a quaint, country church. Those who called this place home were for the most part, farmers and mariners. They were hard working people who took pride in their community. By 1883, they had determined that a Methodist Church would be built. The site chosen was across the road from the residence of Richard and Lora [called Obie] Sockwell Garrison.
The church was a simple structure—rectangular in shape with a gable roof and wooden siding. There were three steps with railings and balusters leading the parishioners to the centered front door. Two long, thin stained-glass windows flanked each side of the front door, and matching windows were along the sides. Another door was located at the back of the building.
The following words of Ruth Sockwell Saul who grew up in North Port Norris, describe her childhood days as a member of the Methodist church.
“The Methodist Church was a hub of activity for us. There was little else to do and nowhere to go in such a small town. We had Sunday School and church on Sunday mornings and services Sunday evenings. Every Wednesday evening there was prayer meeting. Our church wasn’t very large but it was cozy. I loved to go upstairs to the balcony. It had four or five rows of seats, and it was possible to watch who was coming in and what they were doing from that vantage point. Downstairs there was a big wood stove on one side of the pews. The preacher had three other churches and couldn’t be there every week, so he would preach every other Sunday. Church members would take turns preaching on the alternate Sundays. Bertha Foster played the organ. In later years, my sister, Kathryn, filled that role.
Every Sunday that we attended Sunday School we were issued a blue ticket. After three blue tickets were collected, they could be traded in for one red ticket. Once 100 red tickets were collected, they could be traded in for a brand new Bible.
There were about five people in the choir. Sadie Brewster, Bertha Foster’s sister, was choir leader. After Sunday services, a different family would invite the preacher and his wife for dinner. On Wednesday evenings at prayer meeting a different verse would be selected from the Bible, and it was discussed. The kids played more than discussed, but it was a nice get together every week.”
The original building was badly damaged in May of 1891. This meager mention in the Bridgeton Evening News doesn’t describe the full extent of the damage that was done. The wall on the north side had to be replaced. This is the reason that construction differs between the picture taken about 1883 and the one taken about 1947. The earlier picture shows three stained-glass windows along the side. The latter photograph has a chimney in the place of the center window.
Bridgeton Evening News, May 22, 1891
The North Port Norris church was struck by lightning and considerably damaged.
The 1940s saw a decline in membership. Many men were overseas fighting in World War II. Transportation was more readily available and people were able to attend church in other towns. People were moving to other locations and the little church was losing its congregation. Allen Beebe attended church there and served as its janitor when he was a boy. He stated that the church was demolished after WWII, but he didn’t know the exact year. The following picture from the Bridgeton Evening News indicates that the photograph was taken for the 64th anniversary celebration of the church. The building was erected in 1883 and 64 years later would have been 1947. The railing and balusters are missing and the general appearance of the church makes one think it might have been shortly before its demolition.
Over the years, I have spoken with some of those who attended the North Port Norris Methodist Church. Independently of one another, they had similar stories. My questioning took them back to another time. I could tell by the way their faces softened and their eyes seemed to focus on something not in their current field of vision. I heard the pride in their voices as they described this little church. I felt they’re longing to ascend those three steps to the front door just one more time and to enter a place that was very special in their memories.
Their days in that church were more than compliance with a Sunday duty. They loved being a part of that church family. There is not question in my mind that it was a true sanctuary for their hearts and minds. Each of them, without hesitation, told me of a feeling of serenity, and a peaceful presence that resided within those walls. While they were there, they felt safe, secure and at home.
When the church was demolished, the tucks hauled away more than timbers, shingles and debris. A piece of North Port Norris history was no longer. All that remained were memories of those fortunate enough to have experienced what made that particular place such a calm, peaceful retreat. Though each person described it a little differently, each in their own heart, knew that God was surely in that place.