Glen Thorpe will never forget the day a mother and her daughter mistook him for a ghost while he cleaned in and around the headstones at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Lincolnton.
The 52-year-old church sexton had momentarily walked behind one of the graveyard’s large, shaded oak trees.
“When I came back out (in to the open), they said, ‘Oh my gosh, you’re not a ghost,’” Thorpe said laughing.
Spending time among the 350 headstones — some from as far back as 1842 — has become an interesting hobby for the North Brook resident.
“I’m a graveyard junkie,” he said.
In 1990, Thorpe moved to the area from Tampa, Fla., after The Timken Company transferred him.
“It’s kind of like living in Mayberry,” he said, noting the culture shock he experienced upon first arriving in Lincoln County, much different from the faster-paced lifestyle of one of Florida’s busiest cities.
Growing up in the Episcopal denomination, he later searched for an area church and discovered the tiny, red-door chapel not far from his home. The rest was history.
“As soon as I walked in and saw this church,” he said, “I knew I had to be here.”
From the ornate, hand-carved patterns on the front altar to the roughly 22 colorful stained-glass windows lining the front, back and sides of the more than century-old sanctuary, St. Luke’s captured his heart.
Charles Booth, a native of Liverpool, England who died in 1893, crafted a number of the windows, Thorpe said. The overseas native also has windows in various other churches across the nation.
Thorpe revealed his favorite stained-glass piece — especially when the afternoon sun shines through it, he said — is the three cherubs looking out from a window at the back of the church.
The feeling he gets when working and being around the quiet, quaint facility is relaxing and priceless, often leaving him speechless.
“I absolutely love it,” he said. “It’s just a quiet, peaceful place; it’s hard to explain.”
Shortly after joining the church, whose average Sunday attendance rests roughly between 50 and 60 members, Thorpe gained the title of Junior Warden, tackling maintenance issues and other responsibilities around the property.
Over the years, he has served the church role off and on, being named the official St. Luke’s sexton about a month ago.
“It’s a lot of work, but I don’t consider it work,” he said.
With four different buildings to maintain on the property, including a sanctuary, a rectory, a parish facility — formerly an elementary school — Thorpe said he finds himself at the site almost daily.
The property also boasts a bell tower with a bell made in England.
He said the tower served as the setting for one of his more chilling memories over the years.
The event happened while he and another man were ensuring the tower’s steeple was in proper condition.
After hearing something scurry around the tower area, Thorpe shined his flashlight around the area, immediately witnessing the presence of another creature.
“I saw two little ears sticking out,” he said.
Because the light scared the animal — later determined to be a squirrel — it jumped on Thorpe’s head while trying to escape.
“I still get chills thinking about it,” he said.
While walking through the property Wednesday morning, the cool air sending fall leaves down around the graveyard’s headstones, Thorpe stopped at various graves of individuals whose so-called legendary lives often draw people to the historical site from outside Lincolnton.
Four of the individuals were soldiers in the Civil War, each mortally wounded in battle.
While the three Confederate soldiers and Union soldier — Capt. George French — fought on opposite sides during the war, death united them as they each entered their final rest at St. Luke’s.
French served as part of the occupying force that entered Lincolnton at the Civil War’s end, Thorpe said. Two days before French and the rest of the Union Army arrived in town, residents from across the county gathered at sunrise on Easter morning to pray for God’s mercy and safety in advance of the upcoming attack.
Residents were fearful Union soldiers were planning to avenge Abraham Lincoln’s death, since his assassination had occurred earlier that month, church documents said.
Confederate soldiers buried at the church include Maj. Gen. Stephen Dodson Ramseur — the youngest major general in the Southern states’ army — and William and Edward Phifer.
While Ramseur’s large, white marble headstone suffered significant damage in Hurricane Hugo in 1989, a replica was constructed in its place two years later, Thorpe said.
Two additional historical figures maintain graves at St. Luke’s including former North Carolina Supreme Court Justice William Alexander Hoke and Lorenzo Ferrer, a soldier in Napoleon’s army.
A six-legged table tombstone covers the burial spot of the French man marked by legend to have been a famous pirate, Thorpe said.
Ferrer’s Creole wife Louisa was not allowed to be buried next to him at the time because of her black skin. Her grave resides with a number of other African-American graves in a special section on the church property.
Thorpe noted how the church was the first in the state to allow blacks — most of whom were slaves with little to no money to purchase headstones — to be buried in the same graveyard as whites.
While some of the other individuals buried in the Lincolnton graveyard have little to no historical fame attached to them, their lives and stories are no less significant, including famed UFO researcher George Fawcett and Carolina Rebecca Guion, who perished in childbirth.
The woman and unnamed child, who both died on Sept. 11, 1854, share a grave.
Another gravestone displays an intricate cross design patterned after a medieval military order, the Knights Templar, Thorpe said.
Then there is the grave of the church’s most widely known rector, William Wetmore, who lived from 1834 to 1904, church documents said.
Wetmore headed St. Luke’s following the building of its second sanctuary in 1886, after the original facility, whose first cornerstone was laid in 1842, succumbed to fire.
A group of 13 area citizens formed the church this month 172 years ago.
The small congregation first met in Lincolnton’s earliest brick structures, Pleasant Retreat Academy, according to church history.
Interested in others’ lives and motivations for flocking to the area, Thorpe often stops and talks to people who visit the church, particularly the headstones.
Earlier this month, he met a woman from Florida who journeyed north to find the grave of her grandmother.
“We get a lot of traffic through here,” Thorpe said.
Over the years, he’s formed a connection with the grave markers that he frequently sweeps and mows around, seeing each one as a person rather a stone, keeping each one’s story alive in the community.
“I’ve learned them all pretty intimately,” he said.