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Cabarrus Magazine

First Presbyterian Church of Concord Memorial Garden: A Place of History & Quiet

Oct 12, 2016 05:26PM ● By Melanie Heisinger

The Memorial Garden is a privately owned cemetery of First Presbyterian Church of Concord that provides solace and year-round beauty for visitors. Greenery, flowers and fountains surround the historic tombstones of this 212 year old garden. The Memorial Garden Manager, Robert Jolly, is the one who can be credited for the continuous work that keeps this place of solitude beautiful.

We were able to get in touch with some members of the Memorial Garden Association (MGA), a group that works tirelessly to ensure that the Garden is consistently taken care of. Board members Linda Barnett and Glenda Steel took time to answer a few questions we had about the history and noteworthy features of the garden. George Mongold, a talented photographer and member of FPC, shared his pictures of the Garden.


Tell us about the Garden. What is its history?

Glenda Steel: First Presbyterian Church purchased Memorial Garden, approximately three acres, in 1804 for construction of its first sanctuary.  The original building, built in 1810 on the highest point of the property (by the parking lot), was a 12-sided log structure.  The early members of FPC selected a wooded hillside below the meetinghouse as a site for a graveyard, and laid the graves facing the rising sun, following the custom of the early churches in NC.

The second church building, erected of brick on the same site, was begun in 1835 and completed in 1837 with contributions from John F. Phifer.  It was later torn down to make room for commercial construction on South Spring Street. The rapidly growing congregation moved first to Depot Street and finally to its present site on North Union Street in 1927.

Through the birth and decline of these early buildings, the graveyard was neglected.  In 1930 Mrs. Sallie Phifer Williamson,  a Concord native living in Chicago, Illinois, started restoring the cemetery as a memorial to her mother and renamed it Memorial Garden. 

Armed with the Church’s permission, Mrs. Williamson engaged Clarence Leemon, a Charlotte landscape architect, to turn a tangled graveyard into a Memorial Garden.  By 1931, Sallie’s vision and Leemon’s architectural artistry had turned the graveyard into “one of the garden spots of the state…” By doing so, she had spawned a new concept, which was to spread in some measure throughout the United States.

After her death in 1937, her son Marshal Phifer Williamson continued maintenance of the garden until his death in 1966. He generously designated a portion of his estate to be used for the specific purpose of maintaining and keeping Memorial Garden in good order and repair.

Tell us a little about the Memorial Garden Association. What are their duties?

GS: In 1984, the Memorial Garden Association (MGA) was established by the congregation of FPC to direct Memorial Garden’s activities. The MGA was conceived as an autonomous foundation, appointed by the Session (ruling Elders) of FPC, to care for the Marshall Phifer Williamson funds bequeathed to the church and to direct Memorial Garden operations. The board has a mandate to maintain the trust established by Marshall Phifer Williamson and to use it for the sole purpose of maintaining and operating Memorial Garden as was his wish.  

Since its inception, the MGA board of Trustees has implemented personnel policies and established annual budgets. They have made capital expenditures (including building a Columbarium for church members) to bring Memorial Garden to its full potential, correcting deteriorating conditions and assuring the beauty of the Garden. Recently, they worked with our new back door neighbor, Carolina Courts, to ensure the integrity of the Garden.

What can someone expect while visiting the Memorial Garden?

Linda Barnett: As one enters the front gates, you realize you're entering a place of history and quiet. The headstones, ancient oaks (we think to be well over 100 years) and other mature plantings relate the age and peacefulness of the 212-year-old garden. Stroll, bring a sack lunch for a respite or just catch a little time for meditation on one of the various benches placed in nooks and crannies throughout the acreage. The Garden has annual display beds and borders entwined through the cemetery. 

Those making their way through the garden will find multitudes of plants, gently sloping hillsides, winding paths, butterflies, sculpted hollies and intricately carved white Italian marble markers.  A time of reflection is available too at the many water features - fountains and a small waterfall.


What is most unique about the garden?

LB: Local history abounds through stories the headstones tell, stating dates and names, all of which are a part of Cabarrus County's rich history. Here are buried not only Veterans of the Mexican American War and the Civil War, but possibly the burial place of Native American Indians, and an equestrian circus performer named George Yeaman, who lost his life while giving an exhibition here in Cabarrus County. 

A number of Union soldiers were buried here as well, but in 1907 their bodies were removed to the Federal cemetery in Salisbury. Three boulders on the highest hill represent the graves of the Russell brothers who were killed while serving in the Confederate Army - David Russell, John Russell and Robert Russell.  The oldest grave in the cemetery is that of Joseph Shinn b.1751 d.1804. His ancestors still reside in Concord. 

Is there anything else we should know about the garden?

GS: In 2014, First Presbyterian Church Memorial Garden received the “Fellowship Actions Impacting the Habitat”, or FAITH certification, from the North Carolina Wildlife Federation. The FAITH program is a non-denominational initiative designed to recognize and certify places of worship that meet certain requirements for a wildlife-friendly habitat.

The Garden has year round interest and color.  Fall and winter find the garden quieter, but no less intriguing than spring and summer. Look for falling red leaves, fragrant Ginger lilies and Osmanthus in bloom, as well as Camellias, Daphnes and Hollies of course…pansies too.  One might also find four Poke stops!

For guided tours, Jones Yorke Room reservations and photography reservations, please call (704) 786-8009.  

For more information on the garden, please visit our website

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