St. Paul AME Church members, front from left, Pearl Banks, Dorothy Mae Bailey, Emma Jones, Mary Baker, Everlene Bell, second row from left, the Rev. Marie Davis, Eda Ruth Nolley, Ella Ruth Jones, Pocahontas Reed, third row from left, Cynthia Bell, Daniel Nealey and Carolyn Howard gather in the church’s sanctuary. Congregants say they will miss worshipping at the location on Stone Mountain Street, where generations of church members have gathered for 132 years, but are looking forward to settling in at their new church home on Brown Bridge Road. (Staff Photo: Karen Rohr)
Sunday will be a “bittersweet” day for the congregation at the historic St. Paul AME Church in Covington, according to the Rev. Thomas R. Stegall, its pastor of eight years. Stegall said while church members are excited about moving to their new and larger location, it will be sad to leave a place they have called home since 1878.
This Sunday will be the last day the St. Paul AME congregation will worship at its long-time site on Stone Mountain Street in Covington. Next Sunday, the church will begin a new chapter in its history as it opens its doors in a new location at 13108 Brown Bridge Road.
“We’re primarily moving because we are space challenged,” Stegall said. “God has afforded us an opportunity to buy 11 acres and buildings on Brown Bridge Road at a price we could afford. After we bought the property and started using it for fellowships and other activities, God blessed us with another congregation to buy our present location.”
Sunday’s special service begins at 11 as friends and families gather at the old church on Stone Mountain Street. The congregation will hold its final worship service there at 3 p.m. The community is invited to attend and St. Paul AME invites pastors from churches throughout the region to join them for this special occasion.
Founded in 1878, the earliest members worked hard to build their first sanctuary. In 1900, the church burned and was destroyed. Church members again sacrificed and worked to raise funds to rebuild. However, two years later another fire claimed the house of worship. Undeterred, the congregation again rebuilt its sanctuary and that is the structure the congregation leaves as it moves to a new site.
“It will be bittersweet,” Stegall said. “We thank God for the matriarchs and patriarchs to have what we’ve got. It hurts, but it’s a good thing to leave the newer generation a newer building.”
St. Paul AME will move onto its new property where there is a building large enough to hold 600 to 700 people. The pastor said that will be where the congregation worships until the building becomes the church’s family life center. He said plans are already in the works to build a new sanctuary.
“Within a year and a half, our plans are to break ground on a new building,” Stegall said. “We’ve got to work and get our funds back up before we can build.”
The church already has a full schedule of Christmas activities at its new home including church dinners, special concerts and a Christmas pageant.
As it leaves the old site, Stegall said the church is taking its historical data, the altar rail and the nameplates off the windows and pews as part of its history and remembrances of those who worked to provide for the congregation through the years.
Indeed, St. Paul AME Church has a long and interesting history as such an important part of the life of Covington and Newton County.
People around the world got to see St. Paul AME as the old church was a familiar setting in the hit TV shows “In the Heat of the Night” and “I’ll Fly Away.” In the 1950s, the church won third place in a Sears & Roebuck church improvement contest and one of its pastors was featured in Ebony magazine.
The published church history is filled with the names of Christian pastors and lay leaders who worked to share the gospel of Jesus Christ in the community, making sure the church was cared for and that St. Paul AME remained a place of worship and refuge on Stone Mountain Street.
With around 160 presently in attendance on Sunday mornings, St. Paul AME has a full slate of activities and events for people of all ages. It has an active senior adult group and this past Wednesday had a dinner for the seniors.
The pastor said St. Paul AME’s oldest member is 99 and its youngest is less than a year old. He also said family members from four of the founding families continue to worship at St. Paul AME.
“Although we are happy that God has given us this opportunity to build for our future generations to come, we will surely miss the white church that stands majestic on Stone Mountain Street,” St. Paul AME pastoral assistant Freda Reed said.
“I think one member summed it up when they said that our legacy and heritage will forever be alive as long as we continue to tell it to the generations to come. When I walk out of this building on Sunday, yes, I will shed tears, but they will be both tears of sadness and joy, for look how far the Lord has brought us. He has indeed brought us a mighty long way.”
Beth Slaughter Sexton is a freelance writer based in Gwinnett County. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.