Historic downtown St. Paul A.M.E. Church celebrates 145th anniversary

Monday, March 26, 2012 | 5:06 p.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — A quiet moment was rare amid the staccatos of voices and booming laughter in the small basement of St. Paul A.M.E. Church early Sunday afternoon.

Worshippers were gathered for a meal before a special service in celebration of the church's founding 145 years ago. 

Shortly after the end of the Civil War, blacks from the local Methodist and Baptist churches gathered to create their own church: The African Union Church. According to the program handed out at the event, that association dissolved after approximately a year, and the Methodist and Baptist congregations parted ways. There exists slightly conflicting versions of the exact history of St. Paul. 

The history provided Sunday seems to meld the conflicting versions together, stating that not long after The African Union Church dissolved, a congregation of about 30 people gathered in a blacksmith shop to found First A.M.E. Church in 1867. The Rev. E.E. Dean served as pastor in the blacksmith shop.

A church was built in June 1868, where the Rev. H. N. McIntyre served as pastor. It was dedicated by the Rev. I. N. Triplett in 1871. The church stood on the corner of Fourth and Ash streets. It cost about $2,500 to build. That church was sold in 1890, and the present lot on the corner of Fifth and Park streets was purchased under the leadership of the Rev. J. P. Watson. The church was renamed St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church. 

The origination of the name St. Paul was hinted at through a description of the fourth African Methodist Episcopal bishop, Paul Quinn, who led the westward expansion of the denomination, according to the church program. 

On Sunday afternoon, John Kelly, one of the oldest active members of the congregation, orated a history of the church, noting that while attending university in Pennsylvania, he went to a service at the church that laid the foundation for African Methodist Episcopal churches around the country, founded in 1816. 

St. Paul A.M.E. Church was added to the National Registry of Historic Places in 1980. The building is 120 years old.

Many members of the congregation have been involved in the church for decades, giving the congregation a character of familial unity, said Marietta Monroe, a musician. She plays electric piano at services and has been involved in the church for more than 30 years. 

"We celebrate our victories together — when my daughter went to dentist school it was like their daughter went to school," she said of the congregation. 

Robert Wilson, a custodian at MU, is an active member in the church — especially in the choir. On Sunday, besides dancing in the back of the choir section, he stepped up in front of the altar and sang a solo, "Cooling Waters." Monroe played along.

Monroe and the pastor, the Rev. Mary L. Hull-Lovett, collaborated to pick which songs to play. Monroe said the pastor wants to make sure the music is updated, upbeat and lively. This is just one of her many missions since being appointed pastor. 

Hull-Lovett is the first female pastor of St. Paul A.M.E. Church. It's now her sixth year, and it took time for the congregation to adjust to having her in charge. Now, she focuses on spiritual renewal within the congregation. She also encourages the older members to become involved and train younger members to step into their shoes — she has a multigenerational vision for the church. 

Three of the oldest women actively involved in the church have been named the mothers of the church. Beatrice Kelly, 88, is the oldest active female member now. She said new people take roles that were once filled by those before them. Monroe, for example, was trained by the former musician of the congregation, Mary-Jane Davis.

Hull-Lovett said the present dynamic of the church is not just multigenerational but interracial. She sees it "moving towards a ministry of the spirit instead of just a race." 

That being said, Hull-Lovett described the relationship between St. Paul and other African churches as very close-knit. You may find family members at all different churches, she said. 

"The connection is there spiritually as well as with family," she said.

That connection was clear at the anniversary celebration. Jerry Ellison, pastor of Fifth Street Christian Church, gave the sermon Sunday afternoon as part of the tradition of special programming. Members from Fifth Street Christian Church were present, and its choir also sang. 

Ellison commemorated the history of the church with a parable, connecting springtime memories from his childhood to the ability to persevere through the little things that can tear apart relationships. He commended the ability of the St. Paul's congregation to stay strong.

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