The new pastor at the Cove Road Church in Covington discovers that a former pastor from forty years ago was never ordained as a minister, and was therefore not qualified to marry anyone—which means that five longstanding marriages are invalid! With their marriages thrown into crisis, it's decided that the couples absolutely must remarry on Christmas Eve. But with the church desperately in need of repairs and lacking the funds to fix the rotting floorboards and the outdated heating system, how can they ever get it ready in time?
Sounds like a job for the ladies of Covington! Grace, Hannah, and Amelia step in to organize the weddings, while their friends and neighbors volunteer paint, lumber, and good old-fashioned elbow grease to fix up the church. But when last-minute obstacles threaten to stop the weddings, they're going to need a miracle to turn Christmas Eve into a wedding day that no one will ever forget.
Brimming with warmth, charm, and the spirit of the holidays, A Covington Christmas is a delightful gift for new fans and returning fans alike!
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The October day was bright, invigorating, and cool enough for a light jacket. Wine-colored dogwood leaves heralded the muted colors of a North Carolina fall: peach, plum, rust, cinnamon, and an array of yellows.
Grace Singleton stepped from the porch of the farmhouse she shared with her friends, Amelia Declose and Hannah Parrish. Walking briskly, she traversed the lawn, crossed Cove Road, and turned left down the road to the church, where she had agreed to help young Pastor Denny Ledbetter clean out the church's attic.
As she climbed the narrow pull-down stairs leading from the storage room off the pastor's office, Grace heard Denny Ledbetter's alarmed voice.
"Good heavens. This is impossible! It's just terrible!"
"What's impossible?" she asked, sticking her head into the dim attic.
Pervaded by a musty odor, the attic was a dank, dusty room without ventilation other than the slatted ovals embedded in opposite walls. Two bare bulbs crusted with dust dangled on ancient wires from the ceiling. Denny sat cross-legged in the middle of the room, fenced by boxes.
"This." He held out a folder and waved it in her direction. Fine dust wafted toward her and Grace sneezed. Denny did as well, five, six, seven times, one quick jerk of a sneeze after the other.
He pointed to the boxes around him. "Most of this stuff is disposable, mainly bank statements dating from the late 1970s and 1980s. But then I found this. It's shocking and unbelievable. Come, read it. You won't believe it. It's very upsetting." He pulled several deeply creased letters from the folder and handed them to her. "Mrs. Singleton, if what this letter says is true, it's explosive."
"Call me Grace, please. Everyone does."
Grateful that she had remembered to slip them into the pocket of her jacket, Grace pulled out her reading glasses. Dated December 1, 1963, the letter was written on fine parchment yellowed with age, and addressed to Griffen Anson, Chairman of the Cove Road Community Church Council, Covington, North Carolina. The content was startling, and brief, and Grace read aloud.
Dear Mr. Anson,
We regret to inform you that Richard W. Simms has not been granted a degree from the seminary, and therefore the presbytery, which recommended Mr. Simms for seminary training, will not allow his ordination. Mr. Simms is thus not authorized to perform baptisms, weddings, or other rites and ceremonies, or to conduct services or to be deemed a pastor. Many fine young men have been graduated, and we would be pleased to assist you in your search for a pastor for your congregation.
John P. Garner, President
McLeod Theological Seminary in Ohio
Attached with a rusted staple was a copy of another letter from the presbytery executive, confirming the fact that without a seminary degree Simms could not be ordained. Neither letter contained an explanation as to why Simms had failed to graduate.
"What is a presbytery executive?" Grace asked.
"Simms must have been a Presbyterian, and this letter is from the churchman who was overseeing his training and ordination. Something quite serious must have happened for them to dismiss him and not ordain him."
Grace handed Denny the letters and removed her glasses. "These letters are over forty years old. How could this be?" Did Pastor Johnson know about this? No, he couldn't possibly have known. These events took place before his tenure as pastor. And if he had known, surely he wouldn't have kept such information secret all the years he'd been here.
Denny shuffled several documents. "There's more. These are unsigned marriage certificates for the Craines, the Herrills, and three couples named McCorkle. Simms married them all between October and November of 1963. The church called him to service and installed him before they got these letters, I guess, and dear Lord, Simms never filed these marriages with the court." His eyes widened. "You know what this means, Grace?"
"I'm not sure."
Denny smoothed the yellowed papers on the top of a box. "The couples Simms married were never really married, and he knew that. And whoever this Anson was, he knew it, too, and apparently chose to say nothing about it." Denny stared at the far wall as he tapped the letters with his fingers. "I'm sure Pastor Johnson has never seen these. He told me that he'd never bothered with anything in the attic."
Aghast, Grace stared at him. "This means that Frank and Alma Craine, Velma and Charlie Herrill, are not married?"
"They must have gotten licenses and blood tests. But these certificates are supposed to represent legal proof of their marriages by a bona fide minister, and they were never recorded. The couples whom Simms married were not then, and are not now, married in the eyes of a church, or even legally at the courthouse." His hands fell heavily on top of the letters. "I'm just dumbfounded that Anson knew about this and didn't tell anyone. He must have shown them to Simms, must have suggested or insisted that he leave. Then apparently he shoved all this information in a box and stuck it up here. Why would he do that?"
"What will you do?" Grace asked. "These couples have lived all these years thinking that they're married. Will you throw the certificates and the letters away, or will you tell them about this? And Pastor Johnson?"
"He's not well; I don't want to upset him. And I can't begin to imagine the trouble this would cause if it became public knowledge. I need to think about this. I'll pray on it for a few days."
"Surely they're considered married under common law," Grace said hopefully. "Many states recognize such marriages. What would be the point of telling these five couples now, after all these years?"
Denny sneezed again and again; his eyes reddened and grew teary. "I'm not sure North Carolina is a common-law state. I'll have to check that out. We'd better call it a day; my dust allergy is getting worse by the minute. I've been up here too long."
They descended the unsteady stairs, and Denny shoved the stairwell up into the ceiling with a thud. He had met Grace only once in passing, and had liked her clear brown eyes. Honest, he'd thought. He had also noted the faint scent of vanilla and cinnamon that floated about her. She was a terrific cook, Pastor Johnson had told him. Denny judged her to be the age of a grandmother, though her hair was brown, not gray, and her round face was remarkably unlined. He was glad that she was the one Pastor Johnson had suggested that he ask to help him clear out the attic.
As they walked to the front of the church, Grace asked, "How ill is Pastor Johnson? Be honest with me, please. He isn't dying, is he? It's not some drawn-out terminal illness?"
Denny shook his head. "We know it's not cancer or heart failure, and it's not his kidneys. His doctor seems to think he's just worn out. He's eighty-seven years old. We worry he'll fall. He's slowed down considerably, as you know."
"Yes, I can see that. He uses a cane now."
"At times his memory fails him. I've seen him go blank, smack in the middle of a service, over words he's spoken hundreds of times." Pastor Denny's voice dropped. "Recently he forgot the name of a baby he was christening, right after the father whispered the child's name in his ear."
"I worry about my own memory," she replied.
"So do I." He laughed. "I make it a point to repeat names. It's so important that a pastor remember everyone's name."
Grace looked up at Denny, who at five feet eight inches was considerably taller than she was. "We're all glad that you're here for Pastor Johnson."
"Thank you. I'm humbled at having been asked to join him and assist him with his duties. I hope I'll be worthy."
"I'm sure you are. Even though you've only been here a few weeks, folks say such nice things about you. They especially enjoy your sermons."
Charlie Herrill, head of the Cove Road Church Council, had told Grace that Denny was thirty-one years old and had already served his first congregation for six years. At Pastor Johnson's request, Charlie had gone down to South Carolina, where Denny was pastor, and asked the young man to come and work with Pastor Johnson.
"Pastor Johnson came into my life when I was seven years old and in the orphanage," Denny said. "Each summer, he served as chaplain at a summer camp the orphanage ran. He singled me out, became, in effect, my surrogate father. He encouraged me through high school, and sent me to college and seminary. I could never refuse him anything not even if Lorna had agreed to marry me." He stopped and looked away, shrugged, then met Grace's eyes. "Lorna said she couldn't imagine herself as a pastor's wife, and frankly that told me she didn't feel about me the way I felt about her."
"I'm sorry," Grace said.
"It's all right. So many marriages end in divorce, and I avoided that. If it's the Lord's plan for me, the right person will come along one of these days."
Emboldened by his honesty and the sadness in his blue eyes, Grace stretched up and kissed his cheek. "I wish you the very best. You're a good man, Denny Ledbetter. I'll leave you to pray on your decision about those letters."
Out on Cove Road, Grace breathed deeply and filled her lungs with crisp fall air. She felt slightly dizzy, and wondered whether it was due to all that dust, the distressing information they had uncovered, or the uncertainty as to what Pastor Ledbetter would do about the letters. For a moment she stood there, then turned right toward Bella's Park, two blocks farther down the road, where she was certain she would find Hannah.
Denny stood in the center of Cove Road, hands on hips, and stared up at the church. Though small, it was well proportioned, with a steeple that was neither too short nor too tall. The church really needed a face-lift. The smoke from the fire that had burned the homes of Grace and her housemates, the Craines, and the Herrills two years ago had turned the white clapboard a murky gray. He couldn't do the job himself, since he'd fallen off a ladder while painting his former church hall. Six weeks in a cast had been followed by as many weeks of arduous physical therapy, and his leg still ached with every change of weather. The experience had taught him about pain and patience. Life is most capricious, Denny thought. Yet he trusted that God knew best.
Walking slowly back to the cottage behind the church, where he lived with Pastor Johnson, Denny recalled the day that Charlie Herrill had arrived in South Carolina. It was the day after Lorna had rejected him and broken his heart.
"I'm a bit uncomfortable with this," Charlie had said. "I'm fully aware that you're not seeking a new church or wanting to make a change, but you're very special to Pastor Johnson. He speaks of you as if you were his son. When was the last time you saw him?"
"You'd be shocked at how frail he's become. We worry about him living alone."
Guilt had swept over Denny. How long had it been since they had talked or written? Months, he realized. He'd been so wrapped up in Lorna and work that he had neglected his former mentor. "Tell me, how sick is he?"
Charlie had settled his large frame into the chair in the restaurant where they had gone for dinner, flipped open his napkin, and spread it across his lap. "Well, if you'd seen him strumming a banjo at our neighborhood party this past summer, you'd have thought he'd go on forever. But I'm afraid that's not the case. After that spurt of energy, he's been ailing with one thing and another ever since." Charlie shook his head. "We're real concerned about him. He's been with our church so long, he's like family to us."
"He's like family to me," Denny replied.
"We don't want to ask him to retire. For years he's been solid and reliable to the core. He's dedicated his life to our small congregation, given us too many good years of service for us to put him out to pasture. We'd rather wait until he suggests retirement but right now, with Christmas coming, he needs help, and we need a minister." Charlie had cleared his throat. "Pastor Ledbetter, we'd like you to come look after him, work with him, learn our ways, and when he leaves for whatever reason, if you like us and we like you, you can step right in."
The waiter had appeared and they'd ordered their dinners.
"Covington's a small town," Charlie continued. "Asheville's the closest city, about thirty-five minutes' drive. But we're the kind of place where you can settle in, raise a family, and feel you're a part of the community."
Denny weighed both sides of the situation. This church had hired him right out of the seminary, had taken a chance on him, given him space and time to grow into his robes. He had cut his pastoral teeth, so to speak, with these fine folks. But larger issues of loyalty and unconditional love, freely given to a young boy who had so desperately needed that love and affection, and concerns about gratitude, trust, and repayment of a debt, left no doubt in Denny's mind that he would say yes to Charlie Herrill.
Charlie was now talking money. "I realize we probably can't pay you near what you're making now, and you'd have to live in the parsonage with Pastor Johnson. It's small, but it has two bedrooms."
Denny knew the parsonage from his visits. It was small, but Pastor Johnson was neat and considerate of others, and Denny had no concerns about sharing a home with him. "Money is the least of it. I'd be honored to help take care of him and help in any way I can."
When he handed in his resignation, the church council and many members of his congregation had protested. The council offered him an increase in salary and a vehicle. Denny explained how Pastor Johnson had been there for him all of his life, and that there was no choice. Love, gratitude, and obligation called him to Covington.
They said they understood, but when they shook his hand in farewell, some shook their heads as if he were a son who had disappointed them. Many of the women cried. Some hugged him so tightly, he thought they'd squeeze the breath out of him.
The hardest had been Lorna's mother, who had taken him aside and said, "I regret my daughter's decision. She's a fool. We would have liked to have you for our son-in-law." She'd hugged him. "You be well, now, and find you a nice girl who'll be right for you." It had taken all his strength that day not to cling to her and cry.
Denny now walked past the cottage to the small cemetery of gray tombstones. Graveyards had always attracted him, and he visited them wherever he went. Sometimes on warm summer days, Pastor Johnson walked with him there. But the ground was uneven, and even with his cane, the old pastor found it hard to negotiate the paths. "Ah, Denny, my boy," he'd said recently, "you live long enough, you regress until you're right back to where you were as an infant."
Talk of that nature depressed Denny; the thought of losing the pastor filled him with dread and a great sadness.
Grace had said, when he'd first met her, that her son's former partner, Charles Cawley, was buried in their cemetery. He searched for the stone, which she described as slightly canted. She intended to have it straightened, she had said.
"Last winter, with all the thawing and freezing, the ground heaved and tilted the stone," she had explained. "I feel bad for not having taken care of it during the summer. I kept waiting for my son, Roger, to come up from South Carolina. I visited him there several times, but he didn't come up here. Seems to me they could make the stones longer and bury them deeper so they'd be impervious to weather changes, wouldn't you think?"
She had also told him that she liked tombstones that said something about the deceased and didn't just list a name and dates.
"I've written down what I want on my stone when the time comes," she had said.
"And what is that, if I may ask?"
"'She listened well and was a trustworthy friend.'"
"How very fine that is," Denny had replied, and she had smiled.
He'd never given such matters much thought, but found he agreed with her as he stood over the tilted stone, which read:
Died in America, a long way from home.
Honest. Loving. Beloved. He is missed.
As usual, Pastor Johnson had been right: Denny liked Grace Singleton very much, indeed.
Copyright © 2005 by The Joan AVNA Rumsch Medlicott Revocable Trust