Off a two-lane blacktop road in rural Madison County, Mississippi, sits an Episcopal Church, its bell tower, steep peaks, baked brick, clear leaded glass windows and wood shake roof a stunning example of Gothic architecture. The Chapel of the Cross was completed in 1848, not quite a decade before Americans turned on each other in civil war and four years after one of its founding families suffered a tragedy that mystifies the congregation to this day.
Helen Johnstone was the youngest daughter of John and Margaret Johnstone, the owners of the Annandale Plantation. In December of 1855, at a Christmas party at her sister's home, Ingleside, Helen met a dashing young man named Henry Grey Vick. Following a two-year courtship they became engaged to be married in 1857. The couple set the wedding date for May 21, 1859.
But fate would take a different course, May 17, 1859 one of the last great formal duels in the south was fought inside the city limits of Mobile, Alabama. The combatants were from two of Mississippi's most prominent families and the duelists and their seconds came to Mobile to settle their quarrel on the field of honor. Laws had become very strict about dueling, both in Mississippi and in Alabama, so that the dueling parties moved quickly and secretly.
Henry Vick, nephew of the founder of the city of Vicksburg, and Laurence Washington Stith, descendant of the Washington family of Virginia, had always been friends. Henry lived on a large plantation a few miles from Vicksburg. On an occasion in 1859, Laurence Stith was one of the guests at a house party on the Vick plantation and the two men were in boat fishing, when a dispute arose between the two. Laurence got out of the boat, telling Henry never to speak to him again. Just exactly what happened in the boat has never been clearly known, but according to news reports from the Mobile Press Register, of the time, stories told that Vick's overseer showed an act of rudeness toward Stith, and Stith thought that Vick should have protected him, but failed to do so. The failure of Henry Vick to take Laurence Stith's side against the overseer caused the angry admonition, to never speak to him again, as he got out of the fishing boat.
Sometime later the two men met in a billiard room in New Orleans when Stith was invited to join a party of gentlemen for cocktails, Stith refused, saying he could not drink with Henry Vick, "because," he added, turning to Vick, "you are not a gentleman". Vick drew back and Stith made a pass at him. Vick, reads the news account, drew a pistol and was about to shoot when A.G. Dickenson seized his hand and held it up so that the gun could not be fired.
Vick sent a challenge to Stith. His friends promptly accepted the challenge on Stith's behalf. And the duel was set. They agreed to fight with Kentucky rifles at thirty paces, the men to fire at the word. All thought the safest place for the duel was in Alabama and the entire party took the mail boat from New Orleans to Mobile. Very secretly they selected what was known as "Holly's Garden" where William de Forrest Holly had his residence.
Vick was thought to have the advantage because he was a famous shot who could easily hit a running deer with a rifle. But Henry Vick fell dead at the first fire with a bullet through his forehead. He had aimed at Stith's forehead and the bullet struck a tree just over his head. Stith, not such a good shot, aimed for Vick's body and hit the head.
Police got wind of the duel and Stith and his seconds barely escaped on the mail boat back to New Orleans. Henry's body was lying at the undertakers and in desperation his friends called in Capt. Harry Maury, Chief of Police, and told him everything and asked his help in getting his friend's body prepared and taken aboard the boat bound for New Orleans. Captain Maury secretly agreed, even while his policemen were searching for the dueling participants.
The duel was a double tragedy; Henry was killed almost on the very eve of his wedding to Helen, who was home in the forty room mansion 15 miles north of Jackson, Mississippi. On the same boat to Vicksburg with the body of Vick were a caterer from New Orleans and his crew of waiters and cooks and materials for the wedding feast, the caterer knowing nothing of the situation until the boat reached Vicksburg. Vick was dead and the wedding would never happen.
Henry Vick's remains, at his fiancée’s request, were brought to Annandale. He was buried in the gothic chapel church yard which Mr. Johnstone, a younger son of the Earl of Johnstone of Annandale, Scotland, had designed on his premises. Henry Vick was buried there in the wee hours of the morning of the day he was supposed to be wed in the Chapel. Miss Johnstone cut off locks of her hair and placed them on the breast of her dear departed lover. She, who became known as The Bride of Annandale,” placed an iron bench beside the grave where she sat and mourned her lost Henry in her wedding gown.
Two bronze statues of Vick’s hunting dogs still stand guard and the ghost of Helen now weeps at his grave. She is seen wearing the wedding gown that became her funeral attire. Musical strains from an organ are often heard by those who search for “The Bride of Annandale”.
In life, Miss Johnstone, after many years, married the Rev. George C. Harris. He became the Rector of the Chapel and today they are buried near-by in the shadow of a large Magnolia Tree. Stith joined the Confederate forces and was killed at Vicksburg in 1863 and buried in the grounds of the old Stith residence in that city.
From its earliest days as a sacred place of worship for the slaves and the owners of Annandale Plantation, the Chapel of the Cross has been unique, and not purely from a physical presence, the spirit moves across the grounds, unquestionably, unmistakably, in and around the stately oaks, through the Parish House and like a gentle breeze carries things in and carries things out. Shuttered for decades, the grounds overgrown with weeds and deserted by the Episcopal Diocese of Mississippi, the chapel was saved from a fire set by teenage vandals by a stroke of luck when a chance passerby saw the flames and sought help.
Or, maybe God just wasn’t ready for his house to burn.
In 1903, the Chapel of the Cross was officially declared extinct by the Episcopal Diocese of Mississippi. The parish was revived in 1970, thanks mostly to the out flux of upper middle class families in nearby Jackson. Today, there are five Eucharist’s every Sunday, Saturday evening services, weddings, funerals – in other words, what you expect from a church.
But in the interim period of some 67 years Chapel grounds were left in what can charitably be called a natural state, early green if you please. There was no permanent arrangement to keep up the property. Vandals broke windows, climbed inside the sanctuary and built camp fires in the dark mahogany-stained hand-hewed wooden pews.
This holy church, built by plantation slaves who also worshipped there in the 1850s, and its stunning Gothic architecture were neglected, abused and left to weather time alone, standing as it had since the mid-nineteenth century on an old Plantation called Annandale in the village of Mannsdale, County of Madison, State of Mississippi. The precise lines, steep pitch of the roof adorned by cedar shakes, the brick bell tower, even the exposed beams of the interior, awaited divine intervention.
Only the cemetery, bounded by an iron fence and entered by a single gate guarded only by a cast iron angel at the top, was tended by faithful, loyal residents of the area and the ghost of the bride of Annandale.