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St. Paul Classics get their due and their day

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By Greg Summers

The heartbeat of any neighborhood can be measured at its houses of worship.

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But without people who nurture, teach and reach out to others in Christian love, it’s nothing more than bricks, mortar, paint and lumber.

That never escapes the St. Paul AME Church family, which will honor 15 of its spiritual mothers and fathers, collectively know as the Classics, for their contributions to the local community this weekend.

Billed as an extravaganza showcase, the special recognition is 5 p.m. Saturday, at the church, 133 Pleasant St.

Mayor Joe Shaw said the Classics, many of whom are retired educators, community volunteers and advocates, as well as business and civic leaders, are a bedrock whose impact is evident. 

“Just like so many, the St. Paul Classics have contributed in big and small ways to both this town and county,” Shaw said. “From serving on city boards and volunteering to helping those in need, the folks at St. Paul have made a difference. Quite frankly, they give back simply because of the love they have for this community. They have always given generously with their time, talents and energy.”

Founded in 1895 by the Rev. F.R. McCoy and members of the Clinton, Crockett,  Foster, Frazier, Mickles, Moore, Thrower and Witherspoon families and others, the St. Paul AME Church family originally met each Sunday at the Lancaster County Courthouse on Main Street.

Its members raised $60 in 1896 to buy property for a sanctuary, but about two years after a wooden structure was built, it burned to the ground.

But the church family was not deterred by the setback and worked non-stop to build a second sanctuary. Everyone was involved, including the children.

By the early 1900s, the church had become a vital part of the community, with its leaders considered a who’s who among Lancaster’s black families.

The Allen, Barnes, Belk, Boykin, Curry, George, Green, Harris, Hughes, Ivery, Riddle, Thomas and Twitty families are a common thread woven into the fabric of St. Paul AME Church.

Its church rolls include local leaders like the late Lafayette Belk and Charles Clark, as well as retired middle school administrator Bennie Mobley and current A.R. Rucker Principal Phillip Mickles. The late Fred Thomas Sr., the first black elected to Lancaster City Council, worshipped at St. Paul. It also includes the Revs. Chris McIlwain, Cory Mobley and AnThony Pelham.

“That environment really nurtured me,” Pelham said. “Mr. Clark made those of us in band play in front of the church. If you wrote a school paper, Mrs. Tillman made you read it in front of the congregation. They made and encouraged you in love to use your gifts.

“I’m very grateful for the example they set and for what they poured into me at a young age,” Pelham said.

While the names carry weight, Dr. James Boykin said the heritage those names have passed along is just as important. A third-generation and lifelong member of the church , Boykin said the St. Paul family is one of the reasons he decided to practice medicine in his hometown.

“California and other places had a lot more money, but I had my heart on coming back here,” Boykin said. “There has always been a cohesive ability to get along with each other and do things out in the community. It’s a wonderful feeling to be able to talk to each other, agree or disagree.”    

From cornbread and soup dinners to assisting HOPE in Lancaster and helping students pay for college, retired educator Walter Tillman said St. Paul has always reached out. Those who are blessed, she said, have a sacred responsibility to be a blessing. 

“We have an obligation to set examples for the children,” she said. “We have a lot of love and compassion for each other. It’s a family church.” 

It may appear to some that the Classics are just seniors who travel for fellowship and fun, but Tillman said that’s not the case. She said their trips and tours always involve education and, when possible, include children.  

Tillman said one visit to Birmingham, Ala., centered around the September 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church. Many historians consider  the death of four young girls in that bombing to be  the turning point for the civil rights movement that led the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

“We stayed in the best hotels, so the children can say they stayed in the best places,” Tillman said.         

St. Paul will also celebrate its 116th anniversary at 10:30 a.m. Sunday by remembering its past, honoring the present and celebrating the future. 

“One of our stewards, James Davis, has always said St. Paul is ‘the church on the hill where you always get a thrill,’” Tillman said. “I think that describes us pretty good.”