Buckhorn Lake Area Presbyterian Church
Built in 1928, the Log Cathedral in Buckhorn near Hazard once served the largest rural Presbyterian congregation in the state with more than 800 members.
Pastor Tom Burns says the Cathedral, now the Buckhorn Lake Area Presbyterian Church, draws people back with its long history. “It touches humanity, giving one the sense of God’s presence while deepening your spirituality,” he says. “It’s a special place and people come back.”
Reverend Murdoch and Witherspoon College
The Log Cathedral was part of the much larger educational campus with Witherspoon College being founded in 1902 by Pastor Harvey S. Murdoch (1871–1935).
Burns says at the time Kentucky was devastated by the Civil War, and afterwards it was a feudalist society. “People recognized that we needed a change and education became that thing to move people in a different direction.” Around the same time, in nearby Oneida the Baptist Institute, founded in 1899, built a school in 1901 and in 1921 the Red Bird Mission in Clay County was later founded. Just like Witherspoon College, these church and mission-based programs were dedicated to educating youth and ministering to families in the area.
Murdoch, originally from Alabama, was a minister in Brooklyn, New York, and a Field Secretary of the E. O. Guerrant’s Society of Soul Winners.
“He came to eastern Kentucky and was instrumental in a starting a church in Breathitt County,” says Burns. “He wanted to start a school, so he came to Buckhorn.” Burns says Murdoch had a tremendous amount of success in starting the school, in part because he was supported by churches in the New York City area. “Murdock was a dynamic individual, who brought qualified teachers to the area.”
The original Presbyterian Church in Buckhorn was founded in 1907. But, when the congregation grew to over 800, they needed a much larger church building. “With Rev. Murdock’s New York City connections, he worked with New York businessman Edward Gear, who commissioned an architect for what a cathedral would look like in eastern Kentucky.”
The current Log Cathedral church building was completed in 1928. Murdoch was its pastor until his death in 1935. The state historical marker for Murdoch at the Log Cathedral reads, “To Buckhorn and Eastern Kentucky he brought a love for baseball, for education and for God.”
Burns says the three-story Witherspoon College, which served as a boys and girls boarding school for grades 1–12, as well as its dorm rooms and a gymnasium, were built by local craftsmen using native lumber milled on-site, with much of the labor and property donated.
Witherspoon College closed in 1956 but the property and some of the buildings continue to serve the area. In 1957 the operation of the school transferred to the Perry County Board of Education and Synod of Kentucky established the Presbyterian Child Welfare Agency of Buckhorn as a successor to Witherspoon College and Orphanage, now called Buckhorn Children & Family Services.
The community church
Burns’ wife, Gayle, who is from Indiana and western Kentucky, met Tom while he was in the Army. Tom, raised in the Appalachian Mountains around Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, says that helped to prepare him to be in eastern Kentucky at this stage in his life.
While co-pastors Tom and Gayle minister to a much smaller congregation today at the Log Cathedral, he says, “We still view ourselves as a community church, serving the needs of the area. We host food distributions. We run a mission store, with modest priced clothing and appliances. If there is a flood, fire or if a family needs to get in, we open the doors.”
The congregation, which currently has weekly worship on Facebook on Sundays, has distributed food during the pandemic.
Burns says over the years, the Log Cathedral has required renovation. “We came to find out there were a lot of structural problems. Years prior we would get period floods in the spring, before the dam was built in 1958 on the middle fork of Kentucky River. The church board was talking about tearing the building down. Luckily they didn’t do that. Around 2011, we had to do some extensive repair of the basement underneath the Cathedral.”
The exterior of the Log Cathedral has also been restored. “The church board decided it was time to re-skin the outside of the building,” says Burns. “We covered the existing oak boards with cedar boards. The majority of the exterior walls are still there.”
Burns says the interior of the church “is oak and poplar, trees native to the area. There is a crowning jewel to the lumber used, that being the interior paneling is sawn chestnut.”
Ten years ago, the church held a capital campaign repair and improvements to the building. “We don’t have heating in winter, so we hold worship in a community building in Buckhorn,“ he says. “During summer, from May to October, we hold worship in the Log Cathedral.”
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Log Cathedral is a favorite for weddings and also where the Buckhorn High School, a part of the Perry County School System, holds its annual commencement, including the recognition of the school’s 50-year alumni.
He says, “Gayle and I are struck by the generational connection. Rev. Murdoch wanted to see that people got education and stayed here in the area for the betterment of society. And that’s the reason why he wanted the architecture to appear as a log building. He didn’t want folks to think that there was much more to life outside of the region.”
The Cathedral attracts visits from those whose family attended school or church there, and from others just traveling through the area.
Burns says people come back and share stories with him all the time about how special the Log Cathedral is to them. Burns says it’s that sense of connection that the Log Cathedral symbolizes.
“After World War II started and the depression, a lot of people migrated out of the area. But this has always been home. There’s something about the mountains,” Burns says holding back the emotion. “The people here are special. This is home.”
Buckhorn Lake Area Presbyterian Church
300 Buckhorn Ln
Buckhorn KY 41721