In Montgomery, city’s oldest church could be demolished
MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — The bells chime 9 a.m. and a woman who had been waiting on the steps to Montgomery’s oldest church rises to her feet. But she doesn’t go inside the sanctuary. Few people do anymore.
Instead she joins a line with others, a few who slept in their cars, a few who sat on the street. A young mother pulls two children along by the hand. They walk past the front entrance to the church built in 1847 and file into a nearby building for free food, clothing, counseling and help paying bills.
Last year nearly 10,000 people came in looking for help from the Caring Center program, on the grounds of the old First Presbyterian Church. It’s a church that was home to some of the city’s most famous names, that had a role in speeding the nation toward the Civil War, and that later became a symbol of segregation. But only a handful of tourists had come by to see the church in the years since First Presbyterian sold their downtown building and moved to Pike Road.
That changed two months ago, when the current owners unveiled a plan to demolish the sanctuary and replace it with an expanded Caring Center. Since then, countless visitors have showed up hoping to see it before it’s gone.
First Baptist Church now owns the complex and said the sanctuary costs millions to maintain and would cost millions more to renovate. Its Caring Center program is currently housed in a series of additions that were added to the grounds from 1880 to 1950, space it shares with a nonprofit job-training program.
“We’re a ministry, not a museum,” First Baptist senior pastor Jay Wolf said.
Historians hope there’s a future for the sanctuary that doesn’t involve the wrecking ball.
“The work that First Baptist Church is doing is excellent. The work that Hope Inspired Ministries is doing in partnership with them is excellent,” said Michael Panhorst, executive director of the Landmarks Foundation. “We’re hopeful that they can accomplish their goals without the demolition of the sanctuary, at a minimum.
“There are arguably other places you could put a brand-new building.”
The center is busy on a Wednesday morning, but the pews sit empty, frozen in time and ringed by tributes to church members and ministers from more than a century ago.
Steps away from a crowded English-as-a-second-language class, a plaque honors former church organist Sidney Lanier, the same Confederate soldier, teacher and poet who has a public school here named after him. The plaque was erected by the United Daughters of the Confederacy in 1940.
One church elder in the 1800s was William Yancey, a prominent secessionist and defender of slavery whose political work sent ripples across the nation. He helped pave the way for the Civil War.
First Presbyterian spent most of the 20th century clinging to segregation, inside an Adams Avenue sanctuary built with slave-made bricks.
In 1956, it adopted a motion decreeing that “no member of the Negro race” would be allowed as a church member or would be seated in the sanctuary for regular worship. In 1975, a black pastor accidentally got invited to preach, and members walked out when he got to the pulpit. In 1988, the church faced pushback for allowing black children to join its daycare.
Membership dwindled to just a few dozen through those years, and the church sold its building in 2000. The Montgomery Advertiser reported in 2016 that current members of First Presbyterian in Pike Road signed a “Resolution of Repentance” for the sins of their forefathers.
“Some of this history is pretty dark,” Wolf said. “There were people who took the gospel of Jesus Christ and twisted it into an instrument to subjugate people.”
First Presbyterian isn’t a national- or state-protected historic site, but it is listed among Montgomery’s local historic sites. That means any changes must be approved by the city’s Architectural Review Board.
Meanwhile, the Caring Center continues to help thousands while the sanctuary mostly sits empty. Jacobs said workers there yearn for a safe, usable space, one where they can expand the ambition of the program to help beyond immediate, emergency needs like food and clothing.
Jessie Jacobs comes out of the busy hallways and into the quiet church sanctuary. The 24-year-old incoming director of the program said she struggled at first with the idea of replacing the structure.
“I feel like everyone when they walk into this sanctuary feels the weight and the beauty of what’s here,” Jacobs said. “The history here is remarkable. Believe me when I say no one is disregarding that. The intention was never to demolish the building.”
Information from: Montgomery Advertiser, http://www.montgomeryadvertiser.com