Urban Spelunking: Mount Moriah Missionary Baptist Church
Mount Moriah Missionary Baptist Church is in transition and has been doing its best to use the past to build its future.
Over the past few years, the congregation has been salvaging what it can from its old home – built in 1910 – to help fund its new home, the first phase of which is a chapel that was built three years ago.
The old home, 2747 N. 4th St. on the northwest corner of 4th and Christine Lane, was built in 1910. It's a neogothic revival church designed by architect H.G. Hensel.
The April 30 edition of The Improvement Bulletin that year noted the Evangelical Lutheran Golgotha Congregation had awarded $15,000 in contracts for the construction of its new church, including payments to Hensel, carpenter Henry C. Lutz, mason Louis Schoknect and iron worker Rudolph Gehring.
Inside the lower entry foyer.
There was an organ, dating apparently to the 1920s, that was a Karl Besch rebuild of an earlier organ, installed in the choir loft. What remains can be seen in this photo:
Though it's been difficult to piece together a comprehensive history of Golgotha – despite numerous attempts to contact its current iteration, Memorial Lutheran on Green Bay Road – it seems that the congregation was born around the time it built the church. A silver jubilee, 25th anniversary, program was issued in 1935.
By 1940, it was called Golgotha Evangelical Lutheran Church and a decade later it was called Memorial Evangelical Lutheran Church, a name that was shortened to Memorial Lutheran Church by the time the congregation moved to its new building in 1958.
In the meantime, 16 worshippers founded Mount Moriah Baptist Church at 2122 N. Teutonia Ave. and called Rev. Chester O. Manney as its pastor. Soon after, the church moved to 538 W. Galena St., and Manney died.
Pastor Kenneth A. Bowen arrived from Buffalo, N.Y., with his wife and three children to minister to a congregation that was now 200 strong.
Mount Moriah spent $14,000 to remodel its church but that couldn't prevent the demise of the building, which lay in the path of the proposed north-south freeway. The search for a new home led to the former Golgotha building.
"This triumphant move cost more than $250,000 in 1964," according to a history of the church penned for me by congregation member Lois Redic. "The growing membership of 400 did so with much joy when they marched from 538 W. Galena to 2727 N. 4th St. on June 21, 1964."
According to Redic, who described Bowen as "a good-will and fellowship promoting minister," the pastor affiliated the church with the National Baptist and American Baptist Conventions and was well-respected in the city.
"Mayor Henry Maier appointed him to serve as public relations specialist to the Fire and Police Commission," Redic noted.
Bowen served the congregation until his death in 1993. He was also a president of the Milwaukee NAACP.
During his tenure, the church held a ritual mortgage burning ceremony in the Crystal Ballroom of the Hilton City Center Hotel (then the Marc Plaza) during its 20th anniversary celebration.
"Pastor Bowen and members knew that this was a unique experience and a week-long celebration was held May 14-19, 1978," Redic says. "Looking at the photos from the mortgage burning program makes me laugh. Children in the book are now senior citizens. Many are still members."
Upon his death, Bowen was replaced by his one-time assistant pastor – who had left for Greater Mount Eagle Baptist in Racine in 1971. According to his 2016 obituary in the Racine Journal Times, "even at 86 years old, the Rev. Dr. Charles Everton Thornhill was a crackling bundle of spiritual energy. He tirelessly preached, taught and educated for more than six decades."
In 2015, Christine Lane was rechristened Rev. C.E. Thornhill Lane.
A year earlier, Congresswoman Gwen Moore read a tribute to him into the Congressional Record, in which she wrote, "Dr. Thornhill is in the midst of a rebuilding and renovation program for their worship facility. In April 2014, a chapel will be completed where the Mt. Moriah Educational Building once stood. Further, the current church building will be razed and be replaced with a new church building. The chapel constructed in 2014 will then be converted to the fellowship hall."
Though Rev. Thornhill is no longer here to see it, that's exactly what's happening.
The congregation tapped Wauwatosa-based Peine Design to draw a new chapel (Ricky Townsell holds a rendering of the project in the photo above) – which is the current Mt. Moriah house of worship – and a new full church that will replace the 1910 church after it is demolished.
But first, the congregation needs to raise money to pay off the $300,000 chapel (pictured in two photos above), which it expects to do by the end of the year, and then funds for a new building.
Salvaging items, including the organ, a piano, bells, stained glass windows and other items has already raised about $7,000 according to member Ricky Townsell, who took me inside the old church, which obviously has seen better days but still has beautiful elements, including some art glass windows.
"The bell and stained glass windows are two components that have both a major physical presence and deep symbolic meaning in a church," says Karl Herschede, who bought some of the items.
Bell rope and stairs to the belfry.
"They are also, for the most part, not reproducible in any affordable sense. Having the opportunity to salvage these relics from a church in the Harambee Neighborhood was one I immediately embraced. Though it's sad to see the bell decommissioned, it is nice knowing that the soul of the bell, the reason why it was struck, will live on and intact."
As is often the case, the building's upkeep was often beyond the means of the congregation and problems just got worse.
"We trustees knew what was going on," says Townsell, "but the congregation had no idea until a portion of the ceiling fell. At that point, the pastor said, 'enough is enough.'"
Townsell's own wedding was the last one held in the 1910 building.
Peeking up into the tower.
"Too many members were finding it too hard, if not impossible, to climb the stairs to enter the sanctuary and to get down the stairs and use the bathrooms, and go back and forth when fellowship celebrations were held on the lower level," adds Redic. "All the bids to put up a ramp or an elevator were overwhelming.
"The chapel is considered phase one of a building vision that is yet to be completed."
"We hope to tear it down next year," Townsell says without a glimmer of satisfaction. "We have architectural plans. A fellowship center will connect the chapel to the new church."
It'll be sad to see the old place go, but stepping inside, you can see there's a lot of water and other damage and, frankly, if the congregation is ready to move on, then its time surely has come. Thankfully they're allowing interested folks to come in and salvage as many beautiful elements as possible, to preserve them in some way going forward.
"The Mount Moriah chapel is just one flower in a neighborhood that is still going through changes," notes Redic. "Once vacant lots are now filled with townhouses and new families. The parking lot that served the old location of the Isaac Coggs Health Center and the old Fifth Street School has newly built townhouses.
"But some things remain. ... There is still a church on the corner of 4th and 'the Lane.'"
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