America’s Smallest Church

The Smallest Church in America sits in McIntosh County, Georgia, about forty minutes south of Savannah, just off Interstate Exit 67.

The ten-by-fifteen cinderblock structure is tucked in the deepwoods, nestled among miles of kudzu. There is a steel cross mounted on the roof. A flagpole out front clangs gently in a faint breeze.

I pull into the parking lot alongside a lone rusty truck with a camper shell. In the front passenger seat of the idling truck is a boy, clutching a stuffed animal.

The vehicle is loaded with junk. Lots of junk. And through the camper shell windows I can see a made-up mattress with some pillows. It looks like someone is living in this vehicle.

I wave to the boy. He waves back. He looks Latino, maybe four or five years old.

I approach the tiny church only to find someone seated inside. It’s a woman. Her head is in her hands. She must be the boy’s mother. I suddenly feel awkward about invading someone’s privacy so I turn to walk back to my vehicle and give her space.

But when the woman hears my feet make noise she shoots up from her seat. She quickly makes the Sign of the Cross in the doorway before leaving the building.

When we pass each other I can see she is Latina, like the kid, with delicate features, caramel skin, and midnight hair. I can also see that she is young. And she has a black eye.

I am no expert, but black eyes don’t usually appear without outside help.

“Hi,” I say to her.

The woman smiles nervously. She’s missing a front tooth, too. And I notice her bottom lip is split open.

“Hello,” she says with a heavy Spanish accent. “Sorry I take so long.”

“No hay bronca,” I say.

I learned this phrase from Alejandro, my former construction coworker and beer-swilling protege. The phrase is Mexican slang for “Ain’t no thang,” or “No problem.”

My response makes her smile because it’s not every day you hear a dorky redneck gringo slinging around Mexicano slang without a license.

Then she crawls into the vehicle with her son and gives me another weak smile. They leave the parking lot, crunching on gravel. I watch her tail lights disappear in the middle distance.

When I enter America’s tiniest sanctuary, the room is lit only by stained glass. The cinderblocks are cool to the touch even though it’s 94 outside. Upon the pulpit sits a five-inch-thick book of prayer requests and thousands of notes written by roadside visitors from around the nation.

But I never read these letters because sitting on top of the guestbook is a note handwritten that commandeers my attention. It must be hers.

And I feel my heart move sideways when I see this. Soon, I am sitting in a chair and find myself wrapped within the silence of this little house of prayer.

This shack was built in 1949 by a local service station owner named Mrs. Agnes Harper. Sister Agnes wanted her chapel to be a place where weary travelers could find rest, or shelter. The front door has never been locked, there is no key.

They say Agnes would often bring blankets to migrants who slept here, or food for the hungry. And she did this right up until the day she moved into her abiding mansion.

After Sister Agnes died, a Baptist minister named Reverend Ward took over tending the chapel. He would often find anonymous donations of clothing and dried goods left on the altar for the needy.

When the Rev died, all caretaking duties fell to Mrs. Effie Young, a salt-of-the-earth lady who reportedly “brought many a sandwich to homeless drifters.” After she retired, the baton was passed to Patrick, her son, a local truck driver.

For 72 years this one room shack has been a beacon in the Georgia hinterlands. And even when the church burnt down in 2015, after some joker indulged in a little arson, the church just wouldn’t go away.

Because you can’t kill a place like this.

Only days after the fire this chapel was already being reconstructed solely by donations. Antioch Baptist in Savannah donated the 70-some-year-old oak pulpit. The stained glass windows were created by Robin Schweitzer of Waynesboro. Ace Hardware of Eulonia donated the framing lumber.

Thousands of travelers visit the church annually. People still leave food and clothing. They also leave mementos—I found several watches, earrings, trinkets, and rosary beads.

And notes.

Hundreds of thousands have left prayer requests over the years. Maybe millions. And this little piece of paper I’m looking at is only one such request.

Which is why I spend a few minutes in silence. I am speaking to the ceiling, hoping the ceiling can hear me. Hoping the words of a young woman’s prayer are drifting skyward. Hoping that help is already on the way.

Before I leave the chapel, I cross myself. I’m not Catholic; I’m not even particularly religious. But I hope this small gesture will improve a poor gringo’s chances of being heard. For my prayer is simple.

Protect them, Lord. Por favor.


  1. Pilgrim - June 15, 2021 9:38 am

    I have sat and prayed in this chapel, more than once.
    Glad to hear it’s still there

  2. Lisa - June 15, 2021 10:09 am

    If you ever get the chance, Sean, please visit Saint S8mons Island and go to Epworth by the Sea, where you will find a tiny chapel adorned with some of the most beautiful stained glass you have ever seen. It is only steps from the ocean and although it does not “feed the masses” it is visited by the thousands who go there for church retreats and the like. One other bulding you don’t want to miss is the rock cottage that sits between the chapel and the dining hall. I do believe Jamie and Mother Mary would love to see this place with you. Blessings to you always.

  3. Bar - June 15, 2021 10:30 am

    Lord, let my life be meaningful in some way in this world of great need …

    • Susan Parker - June 15, 2021 2:17 pm


      • Timothy J Lause - June 16, 2021 12:03 am

        I lived in a little town named Waynesville, just south of this church for about 5 years.
        I had heard of this church many times before finally getting a chance to go see it for myself.
        My father had come down from Illinois for a visit and we had gone to Savannah for the day.
        We decided to stop on the way back through.
        The feeling of walking in the door is hard to explain.
        I’m not a very religious person, but you can’t help but feel a sense of intimate peace when you step inside.
        We had the church to ourselves during our visit.
        I have since moved back to Illinois (via KY and OH) and had not heard about the burning of the church.
        While that saddens me greatly, it is very inspiring to hear of people coming together to restore and preserve this wonderful piece of… well, peace.
        Thank you for sharing Sean!
        I love your writing!
        I consider myself a bit of a word rearranger myself, but I am humbled with every piece you put out there.

  4. Shelly - June 15, 2021 11:28 am

    Thank you for sharing your writings with me. The depth of your view of the people and places around you amaze me and inspire me to try to look around me and see the good and the humor a little harder.

  5. Virginia Russell - June 15, 2021 11:31 am

    Thanks. I needed a good cry.

  6. Stephanie Mummert - June 15, 2021 11:40 am

    And all God’s people said “Amen”.

  7. KAY JENKINS - June 15, 2021 11:40 am

    This is not far from where we lived, before the people invasion. There is a palpable peace which transcended the arson and rebuilding. So glad you were able to experience this blessing and add your prayers to ours.

  8. Annie Sommers - June 15, 2021 11:48 am


  9. Melissa Williams - June 15, 2021 12:19 pm

    I love that church! When my late parents retired they bought a small place on the water in Shellman Bluff (just down the road). We passed that church each time we visited them and frequently stopped to pray. I am adding that young woman and her boy to my prayer list. Thanks for this.

  10. Steve McCaleb - June 15, 2021 12:25 pm

    Small but mighty. Small but still the House of God. Oh….and the joker who burned it down ? Let’s just say that’s probably only the beginning of your experience with fire. Might want to begin NOW to shop for some Acme fire proof britches. You gonna need ‘em my friend, you gonna need ‘em.

  11. Debbie g - June 15, 2021 12:28 pm

    Prayers for the mother and child

  12. Martha Taylor - June 15, 2021 12:51 pm

    Your columns always touch my heart, but this one is especially poignant. Unselfish love for everyone, especially those most in need, is best demonstrated by deeds and not words. I think church is not a place, but the heart of people. But, saying that, some places are more holy than others. I’ve never been to this place, but your words took me there. Thank you.

  13. Jan - June 15, 2021 1:31 pm

    Precious story about precious people who may have little except their Faith. Please Lord, hear their prayers and be with them in their hour of need. Amen.

  14. Nick - June 15, 2021 1:37 pm

    I am Catholic, and you did exactly what we all should do: pray for this sister and her child. Also, ask the Lord to open our eyes to the lost and hurting in our own lives so we can be present to them and love them as the Lord leads.

  15. beachdreamer1 - June 15, 2021 2:05 pm

    Your reader’s comments as beautiful and real as your story. Bless you all. Thank you again, Sean, this time for giving us the opportunity to pray for this dear woman and her son. I ask the Lord to send Light into their lives, to free them from the darkness and oppression they’re living under. I never knew about that church. Wish I could have seen it.
    God bless.

  16. Dede - June 15, 2021 2:21 pm

    Sean… you’re kind of wrong when you say you’re not particularly religious… you’ve been given eyes to see and a heart to feel the love of God in a broken world. You don’t have to join a church to exercise faith. Thanks for this sermon… wake me up to the needs of brothers and sisters! AMEN!

  17. s - June 15, 2021 2:22 pm

    Sean, I think we both know you weren’t talking to the ceiling. And despite not being “religious,” you have always demonstrated your love for the Lord, and for His creation. People included. Thank you for sharing this story and giving all of us the opportunity to pray for this woman and her son. Well done!

  18. Kathy Coxwell - June 15, 2021 2:25 pm


  19. Christina - June 15, 2021 2:32 pm

    Lord have mercy!

  20. Suellen - June 15, 2021 3:17 pm

    So much heartache in the world. I’m glad we have a Savior who listens and answers prayers. ;;;;;;;

  21. Rhonda Hooks - June 15, 2021 3:48 pm


  22. Linda Ates Hill - June 15, 2021 4:01 pm

    There are no accidents-or chance encounters. A friend I haven’t seen in many years sent me a post you wrote, mentioning the small Alabama town where my sister lives. I was so affected by what you wrote that I immediately subscribed-and ordered your book for my son, who he & his siblings & I are still suffering from the suicide my husband committed 30+ years ago. The suffering & tragic circumstances of our fellow human beings are dim lights we should all try to turn up until the light of day makes them unnecessary. It’s difficult to remember that, thanks for the reminder.

  23. Linda Moon - June 15, 2021 4:08 pm

    I’m glad your heart moves sideways. I’m also glad that thousands of travelers to the church have good and generous hearts. Pure and undefiled religion takes care of others who can’t ever pay us back. Your soul is very good, Sean Dietrich. So, keep speaking to the “ceiling” and to us ordinary earthly readers, too.

  24. vjwinton - June 15, 2021 5:51 pm

    Bless them. And all the hurting. Amen.

  25. Gloria Knight - June 15, 2021 6:35 pm

    We visited this little church years ago on a trip to the GA Isles for bird watching and other wildlife. Glad to know it’s being taken care of. What a wonderful idea the original owner had!

  26. MAM - June 15, 2021 7:39 pm

    Through very leaky eyes I write this. You are a GOOD man, Sean, and you have faith, which is MUCH more important than religion. May the Lord protect that woman and her child and you and Jamie, too. All our prayers will help.

  27. Rebecca Souders - June 15, 2021 9:02 pm

    I had to look it up … here’s a nice Youtube offering:

    Thanks for this “rest stop,” Sean.

  28. Karen Holderman - June 15, 2021 11:18 pm

    A tiny church with a mighty mission. Thank you.


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