Answering Lucretia’s prayerApr 21, 2022 03:16PM ● By Tricia Hoadley
In 1845, at Fourth and Osborn Streets in Cantwell’s Bridge – renamed Odessa in 1855 – the first local, free Black Methodist Church was built.
It was named Zoar – “a place of refuge” -- and its congregation, made up of both the enslaved and free Blacks, was jubilant with anticipation of what was to come. Previously, they were forced to confine their worship to the balcony of Drawyers Presbyterian Church.
By 1870, the congregation had swelled to over 150, forcing the parishioners to consider the construction of a larger building to accommodate everyone. Under the stewardship of Rev. Arthur Hamilton, a new church began to rise on land purchased from local grocer and coal merchant Daniel Stevens. In 1881, Zoar Methodist Episcopal Church at 620 Main Street in Odessa opened its doors for the first time, and was one of the largest buildings in the area.
The church was simple yet regal: its brick was laid in common bond with buttressed corners creating a cruciform plan; the median gable roof of the nave and gabled-roofed wings were covered with patterned slate shingles, and there were Gothic-style windows that illuminated the church in tinted sunlight.
For the next nine decades, Zoar served as a second home for individuals and families through two world wars, the Great Depression, and the ugly, persistent wave of discrimination that hung like a fog over them.
They came to the church to pray, to sing, to bask in the warmth of fellowship and hear the words of clergy like the Rev. Charles Albert Tindley, who earned the name “grandfather of gospel music.” Services at Zoar were often all-day affairs, alive with the scent of food, the sweet music of choirs and the color of seasonal decorations. Its pews were filled with ladies wearing an array of colorful hats and restless children, stalwart men in their Sunday best and the reverent opening and closing of Bibles.
Over time, due mostly to aging worshippers, the congregation declined. In 1973, the church stopped its regular services. Soon after, the Peninsula Methodist Conference gave Zoar to St. Paul’s U.M. Church, a predominantly White congregation, and Zoar was declared a “limited service” church. Recently, it was deemed a surplus property owned by the Conference, and has been dormant since 2015, while its deceased members lay buried at Lee Chapel and Dale Memorial Church a short distance away.
‘I’m all in’
When Kate O’Donnell entered Zoar Church again in January of 2022, she did not have far to walk.
The Appoquinimink Friends Meeting House where O’Donnell is a member stands behind Zoar Methodist Episcopal Church. Built in 1785 and only 20’ x 22’ in size, the meetinghouse is reputed to have been a station on the Underground Railroad. Its basement and loft second story – which had a removable panel under the eaves – was likely used to hide escaping slaves, and is a documented stop on the Underground Railroad Tour as noted by the National Park Service.
About four years ago, O’Donnell saw that the doors to the old church were unsecured, and with a camera in hand, she entered.
“My first experience in this building was one of extreme sorrow, and it was not sorrow because of its condition, but sorrow because it appeared that the congregation had intended to come back the following weekend,” she said. “They had left a very large Bible on the lectern. They left artificial flowers in vases on each of the windowsills, but it had appeared that someone had made the decision that it was no longer viable to continue operating as it once had.
“While it hurt my heart to see this building orphaned, I also thought that it had so much promise.”
O’Donnell shared her photographs with her friend Anthony Johnson, a certified lay speaker at Dale Memorial United Methodist Church, as well as with her husband Craig O’Donnell and several others. Soon after, she received a phone call from the Rev. Kevin Benjamin of St. Paul’s United Methodist Church who said O’Donnell that Zoar might be purchased by an out-of-town interest.
“I began asking my friends what was going to happen to this building if someone from out of our area were to get a hold of it,” she said.
“There is a rich cultural story about the African-American community and Black Methodist churches in southern New Castle County, and this church represents that story being told,” Johnson said. “This church was founded by the first generation of free Blacks – a significant history all by itself, but the subsequent generations that followed were equally as important.
“I told Kate, ‘I am all in.’”
Soon after, Friends of Zoar was formed.
‘Bringing it back to life’
The objective of Friends of Zoar is simple: To raise funding to support restoration of the church, the adjacent social hall and kitchen, the surrounding grounds, and to engage the general public in interpretive programming.
Getting there, however, will be a step-by-step process that will begin with the group’s initiatives to purchase the building, which is currently in motion. It will be followed by asking restoration architects to survey the church and create work plans for its refurbishing, and then applying for construction grants.
“The Peninsula Methodist Conference is willing to deed the property to us,” said Steve Johnson, treasurer of Friends of Zoar. “They are happy to see it come into the hands of people who wish to revive it. We hope to receive the title by the Spring and then begin our fundraising efforts.”
Eventually, Friends of Zoar hopes to fully refurbish the church while keeping as much of the building’s original architecture and character as possible, beginning with refreshing the interior and weatherizing the church. What cannot be salvaged will be modeled as close to the original design of the church as possible, Steve Johnson said.
“We saw this as an opportunity to honor those who once worshipped here and to restore an important building and bring it back to life,” he said. “While we haven’t yet established what our total mission will be, we know that our efforts are about a building that that represents a piece of Delaware history, and bringing it back to life.”
“This is in line with adaptive re-use rather than it being an active house of worship,” said O’Donnell.
After the buildings are restored, Friends of Zoar members envision the building becoming a cultural resource for the community, filled with event-based programming that will host celebrations like Juneteenth and Harriet Tubman Day, as well as gospel music concerts and featured speakers. Long-range plans have also included using the church as a community outreach center that will provide assistance to the underserved and the homeless, as well as or early childhood education.
Odessa Mayor Harvey C. Smith, Jr. said that once remodeled, Zoar will join the many homes along Main Street that form the Historic District in Odessa.
“This church would have ended up like many pieces of property – continuing to decay – were it not for Friends of Zoar,” he said. “Without their help, it may have become another denomination and the history of this building could have been lost. This opens up a dormant structure and gives it a future, so that it will become an integral part of this community, just as the homes in the Historic District of Odessa have become.”
Friends of Zoar member Eric Mease did his master’s degree thesis on U.S. Colored Troops from Cecil County, and whenever he enters an historic district that has a burial ground designated for African Americans, he studies and surveys the tombstones.
A few years ago, while teaching at Lewis B. Redding School in Middletown, Mease visited the nearby Dale United Methodist Cemetery. During his tour, Mease discovered a name on a tombstone, and after extensive research, he connected the name to the Zoar Methodist Episcopal Church, and then made an even more important discovery: The man once served on the church’s board of trustees.
“As an historian, saving a building is important, but more than that, it is about saving history – the history of a church, the history of a community and a history of a people,” he said. “There is a lot of White history being taught, explained and opened up to the public, but we are still deficient on the history of people of color. Restoring this building would be a huge step in the direction of diversifying our history and the stories that we tell to each other – to our kids and future generations.
“It’s important to preserve that in order to know where we are going.”
Of the many parishioners at Dale Memorial United Methodist Church, one of them is 92-year-old Lucretia Munson, who is the oldest surviving member of Zoar Methodist Episcopal Church. For Lucretia, the memory of the old church and her many moments there are never far from her mind, and during a prayer meeting conducted by Anthony Johnson at Dale Memorial, she began praying that someday, Zoar church would see the day when it would open again.
“More than anything, Mrs. Munson prayed that the doors of this church would be open and that someone’s soul would be saved and that church services could take place here,” Anthony Johnson said. We – every member of Friends of Zoar and beyond -- have faith that all of these things will come to pass, because she has earnestly been praying for that.”
“The name ‘Friends of Zoar’ was chosen to honor the caretakers of this building during its declining years. More than anything, they were committed to preaching the gospel and making certain that someone would continue to have an opportunity to give their life to Christ. Mrs. Munson is one of those people, and we are here to see that her prayer comes true.”
To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, email [email protected].