For two decades, she’s been the tour guide who humbly showcases Louisiana’s eloquent brick and mortar tributes to God.
But a mortal imperfection and the desire to see another soul carry on has prompted Martha Sue Smith to close a meaningful chapter in her life.
The 20th annual Louisiana Area Historical Museum Christmas Church Walk at 3 p.m. Dec. 8 will be Smith’s last as leader of a free processional that highlights six houses of worship in a community where faith is still as strong as the currents of the nearby Mississippi River.
“I feel like, after 20 years, it’s time for someone else,” Smith said. “It’s a wonderful experience.”
Smith is quick to point out the inspiration behind the church walk.
The late Jeanne Lovell, who died in 2006 at 80, came up with the idea. Lovell owned the Shirley Shop for years and was a charter member of the museum board in 1992.
Smith, along with Sally Cropp and Dr. Ned Glenn, are the only remaining original board members of the museum. To date, Smith is its only president.
As a high school student in the 1950s, Smith worked for Lovell. The Shirley Shop was a clothier in a building that now houses an insurance agency next to the museum’s home at 304 Georgia. Smith considered Lovell a great friend.
“She was a wonderful, wonderful person,” Smith said.
Smith earned a college degree in radio and television, got married and moved away for 20 years before her family came back to Louisiana. She quickly resumed her friendship with Lovell, and got the job as church walk leader by happenstance.
“I was museum president, and (the church walk) seemed to come with the job,” she said. “It just sort of fell into my lap.”
The first walk in 1994 featured five churches, all within a few blocks of each other in downtown Louisiana. Bethel AME, which now serves as the starting point, was added a few years later.
Lovell was a member of First Presbyterian, the last stop on the tour. That’s where Glenn and his wife, the Rev. Pat Glenn of Calvary Episcopal, serve treats along with a cider that some say is almost sinful.
“It’s kind of simple-minded, but it works,” Ned Glenn said of the concoction.
Each church on the tour does its own thing.
There are choirs, organ and piano performances, recitations with musical interludes, hand bells, poetry and sing-a-longs.
“The talent that comes out is unbelievable,” Smith said.
Cropp handles the guest book and Debbie Lombardino designs the program. At least one member from each congregation joins a museum volunteer in welcoming the crowds, which come from throughout Northeast Missouri and West-Central Illinois.
The rich history and distinct beauty of each edifice adds to the experience. Most of the structures date to the late 1800s, serving as ephemeral foundations of lasting faith.
Bethel AME at Sixth and Tennessee streets is on the National Register of Historic Places. First Christian at Sixth and South Carolina streets features two huge crosses, one inside and one outside.
Large Kilgen pipe organs serve as a backdrop to the altars at First Baptist and Centenary United Methodist, which stand across from each other at Seventh and South Carolina streets.
The breath-taking stained glass windows in Calvary Episcopal at 704 Georgia are intricate, as are the larger, elaborate stained glass offerings inside First Presbyterian at 121 S. Eighth.
“It’s inspiring,” Smith said of the walk. “It gets you in the holiday mood.”
15 minutes per church
Though Smith is downright angelic for most of the trip, she can be a bit devilish.
It happens if churches take the 15-minute rule in vain.
Each congregation has a quarter-of-an-hour to praise the Lord. If the commandment is broken, judgment is swift.
Smith rings a brass bell that’s been in her family for generations to let participants know that it’s time to move to the next stop, and in the past she’s done so in the middle of a carol.
“I try not to,” Smith admitted. “If they’re near the end of a song, I’ll let them finish. But I keep it right on time. After 20 years, they all pretty much have their programs down to 15 minutes.”
Smith’s only regret is that more churches aren’t on the agenda. Louisiana has many immaculate churches, but their distance from the downtown area makes visits by the church walk impractical.
Most participants walk the length of the tour, but some travel by auto. The busiest street to cross is Georgia. And while Smith lets Louisiana police know when participants will be stepping out, she’s also been known to stand in the middle of an intersection directing traffic until everyone has crossed.
Heaven seems to look well upon the event. Ice has forced cancellation only two years. Snow is OK. Other than the weather, the walk remains much the same from year to year.
Continuity and change
“Virtually nothing — not even my introduction — has changed,” Smith said. “I think that’s amazing.”
Over the years, Smith has developed close friendships during the tour. While there are always a few newcomers, many consider the event a holiday tradition.
“There are people who have not missed a single walk,” Smith said.
A left knee replacement a few years ago set Smith back a bit. Had her right knee not acted up, she might have continued in her duties.
Smith recently turned 73, but her replacement is 86-year-old Dorothy Webb, who is the oldest member of the museum board.
“I said ‘Don’t sign me up for 20 years like you did because I don’t have that much time left,’ ” Webb said with a laugh. ”Somebody has to do it, and (Smith) asked if there was anyone willing to do that. I just volunteered. I’m blessed. I can still move and I like being with people.”
It seems Lovell’s spirit still surrounds the church walk, even from beyond the veil.
It’s her recipe that warms participants after the First Presbyterian carol sing at the end of the event each year. The Glenns add a little flourish of their own.
Despite her long friendship with Lovell and two decades of traipsing from sanctuary to sanctuary, Smith claims she doesn’t know all the ingredients.
“I just know it tastes like warm cider,” she said. “It’s got apple and something and something.”
Glenn said that in addition to apple cider, he uses cloves, cinnamon and peppermint candy. He and his wife have a large percolator that cycles boiling water with the ingredients for 45 to 50 minutes to make a tasty brew.
“If there’s any peppermint candy left in the basket, you percolate it again,” Glenn advised.
Only one question remains. Has he ever been tempted to give church walk participants an even merrier time?
“I suppose you could pour a little rum in it, but I’ve been told not to do that,” Glenn said.
Meanwhile, Smith plans to continue as president of the museum. And she’ll attend future church walks.
“I won’t give it all up,” she said. “I’ll do what I can. I hope I haven’t made a wrong decision. I don’t think I have.”