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Pioneers’ seeds helped their church thrive for 150 years

Posted: September 12, 2016 5:13 p.m.
Updated: September 13, 2016 1:00 a.m.
Katrina Moses/

Praise dancers at the 150th church anniversary.

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Sunday, September 11, St. Matthew United Methodist Church (SMUMC)on Black River Road celebrated their 150th church anniversary with a morning service and an afternoon service/concert. 

St. Matthew UMC, a predominantly black church, was founded in 1866 under a grape arbor with a few members. It was a church school – as most churches were in those days -- and it was refuge where blacks could worship as well as educate- reading, writing and arithmetic. 

The pioneers wanted to build a church that would accommodate all their members. The pioneers’ family names were Burroughs, Carter, Coleman, Cooper, Engram, Haile, Halley, Hunter, Jenkins, Nelson, Portee, Wade, Washington and Wyley. 

The bulletin for the anniversary explained it.

“In 1879, the first steps to purchase four acres of land, an agreement was made for the pioneers to pay .50 cents a year until the balance was paid… a small one room church building was built,” the bulletin said. As the years went on, the church wanted to do more. In 1919 they decided to extend the building by adding rooms to the sides. The community came through with monetary donations and materials as well. Skin color did not stop the building of the church. “Lumber was donated by a close white friend, Mr. Shivers,” the bulletin said. 

As technology became available in America, electricity, running water and restrooms were installed at St. Matthew UMC. 

“The parsonage was demolished to save on repair expenses. The outside structure was bricked to maintain endurance and longevity. The interior was paneled, floors carpeted and seats replaced. The grounds were leveled and shrubbery planted,” the bulletin said. 

Fanny Branch said her father’s family, the Burroughs, have been in the church for most of the 150 years. Her father, Charles “Uncle Buck” Burroughs, Jr. died last September at 105 years of age. The members of the church always looked at him for wisdom, she said. 

“These kids need to know their great or great-great grandparents from the 1800s did so much for them to have today. To start in a small wooden church to now, it takes togetherness, people to really believe in the man upstairs and truthfulness,” Branch said. 

The church currently is nestled 200 yards to the right of the old St. Matthew, built on the same four acres of land purchased in 1879. The first service held in the new church was on December 4, 1988.  But those pioneers made it possible back in 1866. 

At the beginning of the 2:30 p.m. service, members of the church stood at the church’s cemetery to remember the pioneers of the church. Church member Betty Grant talked about pioneers of the church as inventors with opportunity that gave more opportunities as they endured so much. She and the church came up with an acronym that epitomized the pioneers: Past, Inventor, Opportunities, Nurturing, Embracing, Endurance, Remembering, and Strength. 

That morning, Reverend Willie F. Dicks, Jr., the pastor of the church, preached a sermon that connected all of the things earlier mentioned. He came from Psalm 137 where a psalmist talked about the Israelites who were prisoners of Babylonians remembered their country of Jerusalem. It was a great place of worship for them, and Babylonians asked them to sing one of the songs of Zion, but the Israelites asked, “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” Pastor Dicks said it may seem like now-and-days folks feel as if they’re in a foreign land. 

“God’s been down with us through the ages, and we ought to sing about it,” Dicks said. “Remember where we came from.” 

Doreen Heath, former historian for the church, grew up in the church. She remembers when the church used to be next door, packed, and hard to find a seat. She talked about why it is important to celebrate church anniversary’s and how a church’s longevity.

“It needs to be celebrated because its history, and generations coming up will not know why we celebrate God,” Heath said. “We understand that a church decreases because people graduate, marry and relocate, and they leave us, but there’s always communication with them. People always come back to visit, and that keeps the church going.” 

Shirley Halley, Sunday school superintendent at the church, has been a member for the last thirty years she expressed similar sentiments. She remembers music always being integral in worship. At the 2:30 service, Oak Ridge Baptist Church provided a concert, as well as St. Matthew’s Combined Choir. There was even praise dancing.

The youth are involved in the church as well, LaQuasha Jefferson was the master of ceremony, and at 20-years-old she knows the church has planted seeds and the youth continue to do the same. 

“We volunteer in the community, the church takes the youth on trips, and more,” Jefferson said.

Ethel Woods was the head planner for this anniversary, and she and the planning board worked on

planning since July. 

Teresa Heriot, member of planning committee, and Ethel Woods explained. 

“We started planning around July and met once a month. The last three weeks we met twice week. I’m not from here, so there were many phone meetings as well,” Heriot said. 

Woods said, “We came up with the theme ‘Living the Legacy: Faithfulness, Love, and Fellowship’ because when I would come down here from New York when I was younger, I always thought the people are nice here. It’s a family atmosphere and their cooperative.” 

Rev. Dicks pastors at St. Matthew UMC, and Emmanuel United Methodist Church, but he explained something. 

“One hundred and fifty years is a long time. Remember, numerous babies were baptized here, weddings were here and people gave their life to God here. Our people have so much, especially the youth, and they need to remember, the pioneers had nothing, but a place to provide strength. You have to remind people that someone sacrificed so much for you.” 


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