Please welcome guest blogger Timothy W. Hooker, an English instructor at Cleveland State Community College in Tennessee. Tim’s most recent book is a memoir, “Sushi Tuesday” (2010) from his long running blog of the same name. Tim has also written a novel, a play, and a short story collection. Since 1996 he’s penned the creative non-fiction column, “Out of Pocket,” for the Cleveland Daily Banner.
I don’t know if “haunted” is the right word to describe it. But, it is a special place, with “unexplained” aspects.
The “It” is the mausoleum at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Cleveland, Tennessee.
Growing up in Cleveland, I always knew in my gut that I’d end up going there. It wasn’t a rational decision. My family was Southern Baptist and I often heard jokes about “Whiskey-palians” and how “where there are four, there’s always a fifth.” But, that didn’t deter me. There was simply something about the little French Gothic church downtown with the wall around it and a mausoleum in the back that compelled me.
I had to go.
So, when I mustered up the courage to break ranks with the family and start going there, I found a place of worship that was wrapped in intrigue and mystery. Come to find out, St. Luke’s Episcopal Church was originally called St. Alban’s, when it was formed as a mission in 1867. Then, there came the fateful day that would change the congregation forever.
The Craigmiles family was a prominent family in Cleveland. You can still see their name atop the old opera building that still sits facing the Bradley County Courthouse. They made their fortune selling food and other materials to both sides during the American Civil War.
One day, the patriarch of the family, John Craigmiles, took his favorite granddaughter, Nina, for a carriage ride. When they came to a railroad crossing, they didn’t stop. The ensuing train wreck killed little Nina, only seven years old.
It was on October 18th, 1871– St. Luke’s Day.
Grief-stricken, the family paid for a brand-new church to be built, in honor of Nina Craigmiles, complete with a white marble mausoleum behind the church, where she and other family members rest to this day. And, when the church was consecrated, John Craigmiles threw away the only key to the front door. It was to be God’s House, open forever to God’s People.
But, the story doesn’t end there. Behind the pulpit is an alcove known as Nina’s Niche, but it is traditionally filled with flowers. When the church was designed, the family commissioned a bust of Nina to be sculpted of white Italian marble and placed in the niche. The sculptor completed the job, but the bust never made it to Cleveland, Tennessee. The sculptor shipped the bust to America aboard the HMS Titanic.
Other bits of fame surround the church. Tennessee Williams’ grandfather was the rector at St. Luke’s and the playwright spent his childhood summers there. New Criticism’s iconic John Crowe Ransom’s cousin, James Ransom, attended there.
Still, the church’s most unlikely claim to fame comes from the red streaks on the white mausoleum. They’re simply not supposed to be there. They are not the painted remains of some adolescent vandalism. They defy chemical analysis. They are not a property of white Italian marble. But, they’re there– blood red streaks around the door and mantel of the crypt devoted to a little girl whose grandfather tried to race a train and lost.