NORRISTOWN — With its Feb. 28 Black History Month virtual presentation, Ebenezer Methodist Church culminates a milestone anniversary celebration during a difficult year.
Norristown’s second oldest church kicked off its 180th Year Celebration last June with a Sunday Worship service, at a time when few people could have foreseen that the pandemic would still be with us so strongly eight months later.
“When we started planning, who knew that COVID would hit and that it would last so long,” noted anniversary committee co-chair Mila Hayes.
“Our committee was brought together to ultimately plan some different events around the anniversary and we weren’t able to do that because of all the restrictions. We were supposed to have a formal banquet in March 2020, and of course that couldn’t happen in light of the continued health crisis that looms over us.”
Consequently, the committee decided to honor church history as well as Ebenezer’s pastor, Bishop Albert Jarman as the longest running pastor in Ebenezer’s history.
“We thought it would be most fitting to do that under the umbrella of Black History Month, honoring our 180 years of service and honoring the Bishop as well,” noted Hayes, who added that the committee has been meeting virtually to plan the event.
“We haven’t had a fellowship as a church for almost a year,” she said. “But we have a very dedicated committee and we certainly want to make sure that we celebrate 180 years of service to the community. We have a wonderful legacy, which I think you’ll hear in the presentation.”
The 180th Anniversary Committee, which was also co-chaired by Nancy Eberhardt Fletcher and Elder Deb Hendley, included Lita Gibson; Adriane Livers; Andrea Keller Clark; Sandra Stevens; Andre Hayes; Joanne Matthews-Wilson; Bernard Gordon; Dawn Hadrick Thomas; Bonita Hadrick and Ernest Hadrick
On Feb. 28 the hour-long presentation on Facebook, beginning at 4:30 p.m., will feature a narration of church history, a performance by Ebenezer Methodist Church Choir and remarks about Bishop Jarman from friends and elected officials.
“It will be a lot of rich history, with songs and tributes to the church and the bishop,” Hayes said.
The event will be preceded by the customary 8:30 a.m. call-in service and a 10:30 a.m. service via Facebook live.
Ebenezer, one of Norristown's oldest Black congregations, began with Sunday School classes and home meetings in 1840. Elm Street and Leigtenburger Alley was the original location where Isaac Gibbs is said to have begun his “labor of love.” Gibbs was a member of Mt Zion AME Church, then located at Airy and Swede streets, believed to have been where the Court House Annex now stands.
Church history further notes that Isaac’s religious labor resulted in a frame building at Arch and Elm Streets that was later converted to stone. The name was Israel First Colored Methodist Church, reporting 49 members and a cost to the congregation of $875 to build. In addition to teaching and preaching, the leaders engaged in helping runaway slaves as a "Station on the Underground Railroad." In 1867, they and others of the First Colored Methodist Protestant Churches merged with the famous Mother African Union Church founded by Peter Spencer. This church received its Charter in 1812 and was celebrated as the First Ecclesiastical Pact to be issued to Blacks in America according to Dr. Lewis Baldwin of Vanderbilt University.
Israel Church was then changed to Ebenezer AUFCMP Church, and built its present building at a cost of around $13,500. Oral history of the church through member Julia Smith, who died at the age of 99, and others, reports a historic meeting with Ku Klux Klan in full regalia at the church. The renowned Choir of Ebenezer sang several spirituals and the Klansmen sang "Old Rugged Cross" and "Faith of Our Fathers" and presented an American Flag.
According to church history, in 1973 Joseph Davenport started a Thanksgiving dinner for the community that is carried on today. An addition and renovation for the church were guided by Ernest C. Hadrick and implemented by Robert E. Wright. An elevator and a handicap lift were installed in 1986 and 2000.
In 2016, funds were raised to finance an historical marker, which formally announced the entering of the church building at 234 E. Spruce St. on the National Register of Historical Places.
As the anniversary celebration is traditionally held on June 28, there is reason to believe that by June an in-person event may ultimately be organized.
“I like to keep hope alive and to think that at a later date that could happen, possibly outdoors, when everyone is vaccinated,” Hayes noted.
Jarman praised Ebenezer’s congregation as having the ability to embrace a good mix of tradition with an eye toward the future.
“Trying to cast a vision with any church is problematic, more problematic with some churches than others,” he said. “There’s always friction between progress and tradition, how much tradition should remain and how much progress is planned. With Ebenezer we have more progress, more forward-looking officers and congregation, and that’s necessary because churches are living organisms …they live, breathe, and die. And our church has been a life-producing congregation.”
He modestly spurned too much of the credit given to his own leadership.
“I don’t think it’s how much I’ve contributed, as how much they have followed,” Jarman said. “At times we’ve had to change the services to attract younger people, and we’ve had an excellent balance of youthful and older congregants. We have to give a lot of credit to both of them.”
He recalled one of the church’s neighbors being concerned at one time that the church was bringing too many people into the community.
“The problem is that maintaining a neighborhood church with a combination of community people is really a success formula,” Jarman said. “It’s been more successful at times than others. I remember distinctly one year we sent 21 youths to college and we had to do a lot of readjusting with our programs. They had been very active in the church, the largest youth group of any Norristown church. We had five go on to law school, several went into teaching. And of course their ideas of worship and church differ, sometimes radically, sometimes slightly, from an 80-year-old member. But it’s been a joy to watch. (Longtime parishioner) Julia Smith was on every youth committee that was formed. The youth would ask for her. Changing guard has been tedious sometimes. I would say that’s been one of the most recent struggles — maintaining our history, honoring our history and looking forward to our future. In 34 years that’s been very rewarding for me, to see one group transitioning into leading and following the church.”
Unfortunately, the struggle has included the need to adapt when some prominent members of the church move on, Jarman added.
“You have to factor this in … many grow up, go on to college and they don’t come back. But we have a good portion that continue to stay in touch with the church even though they’re not living in Norristown. That’s where the complaint came, that we bring too many into the community. They have ideas and feels as though they’ve outgrown some of the ideals they’ve grown up with. Every church has this problem …’we love the church but we think some things should be done differently.’ ”
Jarman recalled a memorable comment from a member of his previous church.
“He said, ‘Reverend, you’ve turned the church over to the young people, and that will not work. ’That made me feel good but also brought some fear, because they were right in so many ways. When you’re in leadership at a church for 34 years you’re bound to encounter problems, but if you’re blessed you’ll also recognize the joys. One of the joys I’ve seen is having baptized three generations, because we baptize children, to see children be baptized, then baptize their children.”
He recalled not being especially enamored of Norristown in his early days here.
“When I first came to Norristown I didn’t care for the city. I came from Biden City in Delaware and when I arrived here it was somewhat different but I found the same ideals, people like Robert Wright, trustee who had the church’s interest at heart. I didn’t like Norristown, but I loved the people, and that’s who I served. Many pastors don’t live in the area they serve but I’ve now lived in Norristown 34 years. There are times that I thought I’d like to live elsewhere, but that’s not an issue. I love it here.
The pandemic has widened Ebenezer’s survival mode, Jarman allowed.
“Some churches are programmed to survive, not prosper. We’ve gone to online services and have adopted a cell phone service at 8:30 Sunday mornings, because as one of the kids said to me jokingly, pastor, that’s the geriatric service. We also have our 10:30 a.m. Facebook service. Many of the older people, including me, have been helped out with that.”
Jarman is especially proud of the church’s music department.
“At 4:30 p.m. on the first Sunday in March there will be an hour dedicated to the music department. Our choir is one of nine choirs in Pennsylvania selected to go to the White House at Christmas a few years ago. They were excited about that and have been excited since that and they’ve participated in many choir festivals, singing mostly hymns. None of this could be accomplished in a church without the support and cooperation of the congregation and the boards. This has perhaps been the saving grace of Ebenezer.”
The timeline of Ebenezer’s anniversaries has indicated recognition of each milestone every five years, Jarman noted.
“I know it’s necessary. Maybe that has something to do with changing pastors often and maybe it’s one of the good things that’s grown out of a 34-year pastorate, that the pastor treasures these events along with the people. The building itself has been a kind of nemesis in a way. It was built as what they called in those days a preaching station. Now churches have to provide recreation centers, activity centers, nurseries and we haven’t been able to do that. But we do what we do best -- provide a place to worship and a loving fellowship.”
That week a funeral at the church was scheduled for a 95-year-old member, a descendant of the Marston family, one of the eight founding families that had started Ebenezer
“There is a limited number who can attend, but she has lived 95 years and was christened in that church,” Jarman said. “Even during this pandemic the church is where people look to have the last event held. So, while some churches haven’t held onto this tradition, we have held onto it. If ever there is a time that families need the church, it’s at the time of death.”