"The House of Prayer for Jews & Gentiles". Photo: UCM Museum

Three years ago on a cold April morning I was driving up Highway 61 from New Orleans with my good friend Mark Bonta to his house at Cleveland in the heart of the Mississippi Delta.

We’d already been through the small town of Port Gibson, where we’d seen the wonderful Church with the Hand Pointing Skyward.

Further up the road Mark insisted we visit Vicksburg – like many towns along this stretch of the Mississippi steeped in civil war and big-river history.

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We came to The Reverend H. D. Dennis’ Margaret’s Grocery on a long curve high on a bluff above Vicksburg and spent an hour or so poking around the organised chaos that the good Reverend had built as a tribute  to his wife Margaret. Back then I wrote that Margaret’s Grocery and Market was a fine example of:

… what is commonly called ‘folk’ or ‘vernacular architecture’ in what might be a slurring recognition of its value or relevance to mainstream architecture. I think that Margaret’s is one of the finest examples of one man’s fertile imagination I have seen in a long time. For mine it is proof of what can be done with some bright coloured paints, breeze-blocks, dedication and faith and a whole lot of found objects.

Rev. Dennis in "The House of Prayer" in 1998. Photo: The Clarion-Ledger/Associated Press

Anyways, the point of all this is to let you know, as advised by no less an organ of record than the Washington Post, that this past Tuesday, the good Reverend Dennis passed away:

Hand-painted signs displayed Bible verses and religious phrases welcoming Jews and Gentiles. “God don’t have no white church, and he don’t have no black church,” one sign declared. The building is still standing, though deteriorated. The inside has been closed to visitors for years.

“Margaret’s Grocery has been the cornerstone of folk art environments in our state and many have traveled far and wide to experience the vernacular architecture created by the Rev. Dennis and Miss Margaret, as well their one-of-a-kind personalities,” said Mary Margaret Miller, heritage director for the Mississippi Arts Commission.

Margaret Dennis was 94 when she died in 2009. “Preacher” Dennis’ funeral is set for 11 a.m. Monday at Cool Springs Missionary Baptist Church, which is near the store. Congregation leaders said in 2009 that the Dennises had sold the grocery store to Cool Springs, and that the church intended to preserve it.

The Reverend ggg Dennis in 2001. Photo: UCM Museum/Abita Mystery House

As I wrote the following our visit at this post:

Margaret’s Grocery and Market is almost indescribable – it is at once evidence of an incredibly fertile imagination, a religious shrine, a jumble of thoughts and musings on the nature and power of religion and a work of architectural art. More than anything it is a validation of the freedom of expression in the built environment that is so apparent as you drive around the south – you can build just about anything, anywhere and anyhow here.

Coming from a country where you cannot even build a shed without a brace of approvals and licences fom various authorities it is at once surprising and refreshing to see so much freedom of the built expression here.

Not that I’d want to be clambering over too much of the site – the Tower looks like it would collapse in the next big wind – and they do they get some big winds here!

The Tower at Margarets is a magnificent jumble of 4 x 2s, breeze-blocks, lattice and various other bits and pieces – whether it would get you any closer to God is an open question…

And the detail and variety across the whole site is fantastic – here two womens hairclips join some light fittings as part of the decoration for the noticeboard, ten feet away a bunch of funereal and faded plastic flowers set off the entrance way and decorate miscellaneous objects, there a car bonnet is used for a sign, paint fades and rivets holding on the large metal letters used on many of the signs pop and the letters swing in the breeze.

And what signs – overwritten, faded but still powerful – messages replete with layers of meaning and message – some to the faithful and the faithless: “This is the House of Prayer for the Church People to Worship the Lord. Please Read this – Thanks”

Vale to a good man taken after a long and rich life. I am the better for knowing your works.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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