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The significance of the fire that damaged the Lancaster County Courthouse fire on Aug. 4, 2008, wasn’t lost on Walter Lee Tillman.
But Tillman’s feelings for the 181-year-old structure that Robert Mills designed go well beyond its role as a house of justice.
For Tillman and the 160-plus members of St. Paul AME Church, the courthouse is the house of worship they trace their religious roots to.
While St. Paul AME will celebrate its 114th anniversary on Aug. 29-30 at its Pleasant Hill Street home, its tie to the historic courthouse remains binding.
Led by the Rev. F.R McCoy, members of the Frazier, Clinton, Moore, Foster, Crockett, Witherspoon, Thrower and Mickles families, along with others, started meeting at the courthouse each week in 1895.
“The courthouse was a place of worship on Sunday morning for us,” Tillman said. “Our families found a home there.”
And St. Paul AME Church is indeed family, Tillman said.
“It’s a family church where everyone loves everyone,” she said. “Most of us grew up together there.”
St. Paul fell on hard times almost before it got off the ground. Its members raised $60 in 1896 to buy property for a sanctuary. About two years after a wooden structure was built, it burned to the ground.
However, the tragedy made the St. Paul family even stronger, according to its church history.
Instead of sitting back, its members worked non-stop to build a second sanctuary. Everyone was involved, including the children. The church choir traveled to surrounding towns and communities to raise money for construction.
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.
Educators like the late Lafayette Belk and Charles Clark were members. So is Dr. James Boykin, retired middle school assistant principal Bennie Mobley and Phillip Mickles, principal of A.R. Rucker Middle School. The late Fred Thomas Sr., the first black elected to Lancaster City Council, worshiped at St. Paul.
That’s no fluke, said Bill Wilson, chairman of the church’s homecoming committee. It echoes to a time when churches were the heart of each community. Wilson attributes it to the first St. Paul members picking an appropriate location.
“I think that has a lot to do with it,” Wilson said. “It’s a central location in that part of town.”
The cornerstone of the present 250-seat church is dated 1908-1957. While St. Paul’s members burned the church mortgage in September 1969, the church undertook an extensive remodeling plan in 1976-77. The interior was completely gutted and renovated.
While the buildings may have changed, longtime church member Arthur Mae Twitty, 83, said the sweet spirit St. Paul’s worshippers enjoy never changes. The Rev. Harry Burns has been shepherding the St. Paul flock for about seven years.
“The only thing that’s really different is that things are now left up to the younger generation,” Twitty said.
Viola Jones, who is about to celebrate her 84th birthday, said St. Paul’s success is rooted in Scripture. She said God meant for brothers and sisters in Christ to fellowship and worship together.
“It’s about hearing and understanding the word,” Jones said. “Folks who don’t go to church and have a good church family don’t realize what they are missing out on.
“I know I’ve gone to St. Paul all my life, from a little tot growing up,” she said. “I’ve gone other places when I’ve been out of town, but I always come back to St. Paul. It’s my home.”
Want to go?
WHAT: St. Paul AME Church 114th anniversary
WHERE: 133 Pleasant Hill St.
WHEN: Church carnival is 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday. The 10:30 a.m. Aug. 30 homecoming service features guest speaker the Rev. Cory Mobley of San Antonio, Texas.