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A little church with a big history
It's the season for celebrating a community rich with historical churches. St. James African Methodist Episcopal Church at 516 North St. will celebrate its 144th anniversary Sunday.
According to a short history written by church member Charles A. Dunn, the church was first organized in 1863 when circuit riders established the St. James Society. The Revs. Winston and Burks, professor Samuel Newton and Uncle Jesse Stanton established the society -- or station, as it was sometimes called -- after holding their services in the old First Baptist Church on Lorimier Street.
The formal organization of St. James AME church took place in 1868, and the church building dates back to 1875.
"The church building of St. James itself is somewhat similar to St. Mary's Cathedral, without all the ornamentation that goes with a Catholic Church," Dunn writes. "It is also not as large as St. Mary's, but its charm lies on the inside, with the mural that greets the church members when they walk in the door."
As a church, St. James AME's congregation has had a significant impact in the community. As early as 1883, the 29th annual conference was held at St. James. After 1889, the Rev. Charles Hunter built a new parsonage, remodeled and enlarged the church, and had one of the greatest revivals ever held in Cape Girardeau, bringing more than 200 people to God.
According to Dunn, the Cape Girardeau chapter of the NAACP was first organized and held its first meeting at St. James. The celebrations honoring the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. were spearheaded by members of St. James AME Church; the celebrations have now grown to a full-day event that encompasses the entire city.
"When African-American teachers needed somewhere to eat lunch during training sessions, St. James was the place to go," Dunn writes. "This church has indeed helped African-Americans, as well as the general public over the past century."
St. James has extended a helping hand to the entire community over the years. Dunn said that when people needed help getting somewhere, St. James' members would get them a bus ticket, train ticket or cab fare.
"People who have needed money for food and rent have turned to this church community for help," he said. "Still to this day gift baskets are given out on Thanksgiving and Christmas to those who need it most. In addition the church has served as a shelter for those who were forced out of their homes by floods."
When St. James needed help, its members stepped up. A history provided by member Denise Mitchell outlines how in 1936, the Rev. L.F. Greene came and saved the church from being sold, and raised $700 in 30 days. In 1941, a new pastor, the Rev. C.L. Williams, rallied the church members each year for four years, raising enough money to clear the church of a long-standing debt. His efforts not only raised enough money to pay off the mortgage, but ensured there was enough of a balance to redecorate the church. On Aug. 5, 1945, the church held a mortgage-burning ceremony with the Rev. R.S. Everette of Cairo, Ill., as guest speaker. People from the community of all backgrounds came to the church to share in their celebration of the event.
In 1962 members dedicated a new organ, and throughout the years many improvements were made at the church. In 2006, St. James was one of five local churches recognized by the Cape Girardeau Historical Preservation Commission as an Original Treasure. The most recent improvement was when Keith Mitchell, Denise Mitchell's brother, painted the formerly white church a light tan. Keith Mitchell's employer donated the paint "because they like him so much as an employee," she said.
Coming back tomorrow for the anniversary celebration will be the Rev. Ervin Williams of Champaign, Ill., head of Restoration Ervin Ministries. Williams is a former altar boy at St. James Church, Denise Mitchell said.
St. James remains a small but active church, said the Rev. Debbie Thornton, its current pastor. Thornton encourages everyone in the community to come to St. James and celebrate its 144 years of service to Jesus Christ.
335-6611, extension 160