The Church is young in Darien, a coastal town in southeast Georgia settled in the early 1700s by Scottish highlanders.
As a protection against Spain and France, the British in 1721 erected a military post, Fort King George, located about 60 miles down the coast from present-day Savannah. Farms and plantations here were destroyed by British forays during the Revolutionary War, and, during the American Civil War, what had been a thriving town at the mouth of the Altamaha River and a major center for exporting cotton and timber rivaling even Savannah in importance was left "a blacken plain of ashes" by the federal navy and Sherman's troops. (Buddy Sullivan, Memories of McIntosh, published by The Darien News, 1990.)Fort King George was reconstructed in 1988 and is now part of the national Parks Service. While reconstruction of the fort captured attention of the local citizenry, Latter-day Saints were more interested in a new buillding located less than a quarter of a mile away. In February 1987, a new meetinghouse was dedicated, home of the Darien Branch in the Jacksonville Florida North Stake.
The meetinghouse, now a two-phase structure, is located on acreage accented by fan-shaped palmetto palms, and surrounded by oak trees from which Spanish moss hangs like randomly hung lace curtains. Across the road from the meetinghouse is a sandy lane so white it looks like it's been scrubbed clean. A pair of missionaries walking down the lane with scriptures in hand completes the scene.
Pioneers of the Church in Darien and McIntosh County still live here. Lyman and Audrey Padgett's home is in a picturesque setting at the end of a lane just outside town. They moved here in 1950.
His father, Dow Bradwell Padgett, was baptized in 1899 in Glenville (Tattnall County), Ga. According to family history, Dow Padgett was the only man in Tattnall County who permitted the missionaries to enter his home for the purpose of preaching the gospel. Dow's sister, Liza Boone, and several other family members joined the Church about that time.
"We were the first members of the Church to move to Darien," Brother Padgett said. "My brother, Parley, was already down here fishing, but he had not moved his family to Darien at that time. He moved here later."
For years, Brother Padgett was teh "head of the Church" in Darien. "Whenever teh elders came here, we would have cottage meetings in our home, but the rest of the time we went to Church in Brunswick, about 18 miles south of here," Brother Padgett said "It wasn't easy, but we went twice on Sunday [before the current block meeting schedule was introduced}, and every Wednesday." The week-day trip was to take their children to Primary and MIA.
As some of the Boone family and other members began to arrive in Darien, Brother Padgett asked mission and district leaders for permission to start a Sunday School here. At first, the Sunday School met in the city hall, and later in an old restaurant and then in a rented house before the new meetinghouse was built.
"We had about 14 children in our Sunday School," Brother Padgett said. "Some of our older daughters taught classes, and we had some adults who came out."
The Darien Branch was organized in 1971, but it was dependent on the Brunswick Branch. It became an independent branch in 1974. Brother Padgett was a member of the high council of South Georgia District, Southern States Mission, for several years, and served in the district presidency about four years. When the Darien Branch was placed in the Jacksonville Florida North Stake, Brother Padgett became a member of the stake high council.
The Padgetts' son, Richard, who lives next door with his wife, Libby, and their children, is now president of the Jacksonville Florida Stake, and a former president of the branch in Darien.
"When I was president of the Darien Branch, there was some discussion about having us join with the Savannah Stake, but we were concerned about the people who wouldn't be able to travel to go to Church in Savannah," Pres. Richard Padgett said. "The branch has continued to grow; there are about 180 members in the branch now. About two years ago, some of the large families in the branch started moving out, so we've had a little decline in membership, but overall, the Darien Branch has been one of the strongest and most active units in our stake, although it is only a branch.
"The greatest strength of the branch is the spirit of love that we have for each other. We're famous for it. Everyone who comes to our branch, even for a visit, recognizes it. I guess that love comes from being a small branch, growing up together and developing a closeness."
While the timber industry employs many in the area, several members in Darien rely on the fishing industry for their livelihood. In fact, every president of the Darien Branch has been a fisherman. Lyman Padgett, who got the branch started, was a commercial fisherman. Donell F. Boone, who served as branch president from 1974-1980, went to work as a teenager on his father's shrimp boat. Brother Boone eventually owned several boats, and still has two in operation. In addition, he owns and operates the town hardware store. Pres. Richard Padgett, who succeeded Brother Boone as branch president, was a fisherman for many years, and the current branch president, David Karwacki is a commercial fisherman. Pres. Karwacki's wife, Laura, makes crab traps for him to set out.
Pres. and Sister Karwacki were not members of the Church when they moved from Maryland to Darien in 1983. A commercial fisherman from the eastern shore of Maryland, he foresaw problems with the fishing industry there and moved south, stopping at various places along the way until he decided Darien would be a good place to ply his trade. The Karwackis smile when they say if they had not come to Darien to fish they most likely would not have been caught up in the gospel net and become members of the Church.
"We had never heard of a Mormon until we moved to Darien," Sister Karwacki said. "We have three children. One of them, Jessica, was about 5 when she met Jennifer Wallace at school. They became friends. Jennifer asked if Jessica could go to church with her. I said it was OK. The next thing I knew, the missionaries were knocking at our door. I didn't want to talk to them, so I didn't answer the door. Meanwhile, the missionaries went to our neighbor's house, and she said I must be home because my car was there. The missionaries went to the back of our house. David was in the back yard and invited them in. That began David's study of the gospel. I still was not interested, but I did listen.
"One Saturday, he said,
We're going to the Mormon Church tomorrow.' I said,Oh, no, we're not!' We argued about it, but I drove Jessica over to Church because she had promised her friend she would go.
"At that time, the Darien Branch met in a rented house that is now our home. I got up on Sunday morning, got dressed and brought Jessica over here. I had planned to just leave her and come back for her after Church was over, but the missionaries came out and persuaded me to come inside to Relief Society. David didn't know where I was. My parents had moved to Darien; he thought I was over at their house, but he couldn't find me. Finally, he decided to come to Church without me. He was dumbfounded to see my car parked out there in the yard.
"When we got home, he asked, `How did you like Church?' I told him I liked it. We've been going to Church ever since. We were baptized Feb. 21, 1987. Other members of my family have joined - two sisters and a brother - since they moved here. The members have really fellowshipped us. There's a special bond among the members of the branch. There's something about them that makes you feel welcome."