The congregation of the historic Saint Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church in Covington is moving. And though the relocation is seen as a step forward for the congregation, some members are unhappy to leave the historic site behind.
Saint Paul AME, which has been at its Stone Mountain Street location for more than 132 years, will relocate to 13108 Brown Bridge Road on Dec. 1. The church has about 250 members.
Through the years, the church has had many reverends and bishops serve as pastors; has hosted a number of NAACP and civil rights meetings; has been used as a filming site for movies and TV shows such as “In the Heat of the Night,” and “I’ll Fly Away;” and has ministered to many, many families from the Newton County community and beyond.
Church administrators say the time has come for the church to move forward for the building of God’s kingdom.
According to its historical records, Saint Paul AME organized in 1878 and had its first church structure built at great sacrifice in an era when wages and earning power were low for people of African descent. According to the records a “Mr. L Bates,” a successful blacksmith in the community, donated the land for the church.
Rev. Bellsaw, a founder, served as the pastor until 1902.
In 1900, the church burned, and many of the first records were lost. Church members rebuilt on the present site, this time also building a parsonage for the pastor. Two years later, the church burned again, and both the church and the parsonage were lost. However, members again built the church and a new parsonage in the same year.
As the church grew through the years, Sunday school rooms, offices, a kitchen, fellowship area and other rooms were added. In addition, other improvements were made to the building and the property.
The Rev. Thomas Stegall currently serves as senior pastor and presides with his wife, Katherine Stegall. They have been serving at the ministry since 2006. Stegall said the time has come for the congregation to move to prepare for growth and continue its community outreach.
Four generations of families attend Saint Paul AME Church. Several elders were at the church’s Stone Mountain Street location Wednesday afternoon. Some of those elders said they grew up in the church, live just minutes away, and have had generations of their family members attend.
While some were excited about the move, others said they are uncomfortable with the extra travel required to get to the new church. However, Stegall said some of those members have already made their way to the new building for several special services.
“The spirit of the church right now, it’s not divided; there are some down feelings because there is an attachment to this physical property. But every activity that we have held at the Brown Bridge location has been excellently attended across-the-board. Even the mothers here who have verbally stated that they won’t have any part of it, when the doors open, they are there first,” he said.
“They are simply expressing their love for this space of worship that they have enjoyed serving God at for so long. I believe that when we do reach the new facility full-time, all that will quickly fade and the fact that we are moving, we’re simply … giving God a better place to meet us at. And I think they understand that. But it is hard to let go of yesterday.”
The new building, which sits on 11.5 acres, will seat 600 members comfortably and is twice the size of Saint Paul AME’s current building. Stegall said the Brown Bridge space was already built for use as a church, but the church that had it constructed lost its membership and the building wasn’t completed. He said Saint Paul AME purchased the building and had it “outfitted.”
Stegall said services have already been held at the new facility, and attendance has been good.
“We had our church picnic, we had a lock-in, and we’ve had a homecoming out there, so we’ve had a number of services. And the interesting thing is, whenever the doors open, there’s a lot of the local community that has already started to make their way over there,” he said.
“It saddens me as the leader and the pastor to see that there are some who aren’t going to come, because of their love and their attachment to this building. But God has blessed us to grow, not only building-wise, but membership-wise. And we need to do what we need to do in the name of God.
“I do not want to see anybody walk away from something they love as much as they have expressed their love for this. But in the evening, when I have to give an account of my ministries, I have to be able to tell God, ‘You said go.”
Dennis Watson said there will be a week filled with special services before Saint Paul AME moves to its new location permanently.
Services include a Community Historic Night, Nov. 18; a Picture Night for members to take final photos of the old church, Nov. 19; an all-day prayer vigil and special lunch for the community at the Brown Bridge location, Nov. 20; and a Bell Service Nov. 21 to reflect on the members who have passed away, Watson said. Sunday, Nov. 24, will be Family Friends Day with a worship service at 11 a.m. and the final worship service at the Stone Mountain Street church building at 3 p.m.
Rev. Stegall said a ministry that meets at a location on Ga. Highway 36 will move into Saint Paul AME’s old church building.