St. Matthias Episcopal Church in Summerton, South Carolina (pop. 1,000) was a mission congregation in decline during the early 2000s. Prospects for growth in this rural area seemed dim.
But average Sunday attendance has doubled to more than 80 and St. Matthias has become a self-supporting parish for the first time since its founding in 1899.
The key, according to the Very Rev. David Thurlow, has been the development of a Montessori preschool, which draws young families to become involved in church life.
“We’re just a small little church,” said Dean Thurlow, who transferred from the Anglican Church of Canada and began his ministry at St. Matthias in 2001. “But through diocesan investment in the school, and other programs as well, we’ve been able to grow and be blessed.”
The education method founded by Maria Montessori (1870-1952) emphasizes creativity, experiential learning, and allowing children to learn at their own pace. The parish’s preschool, which will celebrate its 10th year in the fall, welcomes children ages 3 through 6.
The school admits 12 to 15 children at a time. It serves the entire community, but many students and their parents attend the church as well. Thurlow counts about 20 people — including parents, enrolled children, and alumni — who attend St. Matthias because of their connections to the school.
Launching the school required investment commensurate with the bold vision of the congregation. The Diocese of South Carolina provided $60,000 in seed funds.
“That leap of faith led to a growth in youth ministry and a growth in young [families] coming to the parish in a depressed county,” Thurlow said. The preschool is now self-supporting.
Space was tight, however, and it soon became clear that another leap of faith would be necessary. A capital campaign launched with $200,000 from the diocese will pay for 5,000 square feet of additional space, including a new parish hall, Sunday-school rooms, and the preschool.
“We were like a potted plant that needed a bigger pot to accommodate our growing church,” Thurlow said.
The congregation has stepped up to underwrite the $1 million building project. Parishioners have pledged more than $510,000. As pledges have come in, the church has reduced its construction debt to about $465,000.
“It was a big undertaking for a small little church,” Thurlow said. “Investing in the Montessori preschool and placing such a significant emphasis on outreach to young children really has translated into healthy growth for the parish.”
G. Jeffrey MacDonald
Image of Maria Montessori from the Library of Congress, via Flickr