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Raleigh Church Marks 150 Years

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RALEIGH — In 1848, James Knox Polk was president. Gold was discovered that year at Sutter's Mill in California. Horses were the usual method of transportation, ladies' skirts skimmed the ground and the United States was a relatively small country.

In Raleigh, a fledgling congregation was formally choosing a name: St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church.

Today, the congregation marks a very special anniversary -- 150 years of St. Paul sermons, singing, ceremonies and fellowship.

Originally, the members were the slave membership of nearby Edenton Street Methodist (now United Methodist) Church.

In 1853, white members of Edenton Street Methodist bought a church building from Christ Episcopal for the black congregation. At the conclusion of their day's labor, and working by torchlight, the African-American men shifted the building down the street by horse-drawn rollers to the corner of Harrington Street, which is still the church's site.

The Rev. Gregory L. Edmond has been pastor for 28 years. He toldThe News & Observer, "We have an old saying: 'They had so little and did so much, and sometimes we have so much and do so very little.'"

In the 1880s, the members established a long-term building fund. Many of them had low-wage jobs and saving for such a goal demanded sacrifice. "Everything they had, they gave," Edmond said.

And in 1901 the new building opened. But a scant eight years later the church was destroyed by fire. Members vowed to rebuild, and they did, following the original plans. In 1910, the doors opened on the handsome Gothic Revival-style building; today it is a Raleigh Historic Landmark and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Fifteen decades of history have shaped the church and its congregation.

Slavery was legal when the St. Paul congregation organized itself. Generations of members experienced the Civil War, followed by Reconstruction, segregation and the fight for civil rights. They lived through, and participated in, more wars in other lands. They weathered the desperate days of the Depression and the worries of the Cold War.

St. Paul was the site of the Freedman's Convention after the Civil War. According to church history, the first public school for blacks in Raleigh was held at the building. Jesse Jackson made his "Rainbow Coalition" speech in the church during his campaign for the presidency.

Year after year, even sweltering summer heat and the bone-chilling ice storms of winter haven't kept the congregation from making its way to St. Paul to listen to sermons and gospel music.

When the church began, people communicated by speaking to each other or letter -- and the biggest news got to newspapers by telegraph. Today, members have cellphones, computers, maybe even their own websites.

Through it all, St. Paul has been a light to its members, and has tried to keep the spirit of those who preceded them.

And they keep looking forward -- a new $1.5 million education building has been constructed.

After the latest Sunday morning sermon, and before a reception at a nearby hotel, the congregation, which today numbers 1200, came out onto Harrington Street to watch doves being released.

Edmond said the doves represent the spirit of those whose long-ago dream became reality. That reality has become a 150-year legacy to the congregation and to the greater community as well.

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Ron Pittman, Photographer
Kay Miller, Web Editor

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