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Historic church celebrates 190th anniversary

From Oct. 13—15, the St. James A.M.E. Zion Church in Ithaca recently celebrated its 190th anniversary. A historic landmark, St. James is not only Ithaca’s oldest church structure but is also one of the African Methodist Episcopal, or A.M.E, Zion churches in the U.S.

Historic significance of the church

Sign outside the St. James A.M.E. Zion Church. Inbaayini Anbarasan/Ithaca Week

First opened in 1833, St. James found its permanent home on Cleveland Avenue in 1836. It served as an integral part of the Underground Railroad, functioning as a stop for many people, including Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass.

Reverend Terrance A. King, Pastor of the church, is the church’s youngest pastor to date.

“St. James was built by our commission by free slaves to be a beacon of light and hope to those who were both in bondage and who were free,” King said. “Those seeking freedom would stop in Ithaca, strategic places in Ithaca, including the church before they decided which route they would go to freedom in the north.”

Gerard Aching, retired professor of Africana and Romance Studies at Cornell University, has worked closely with the church in unearthing its rich history.

“It was pivotal in the Underground Railroad, but the residents right around who are either free or recently freed or escaped, who lived around St. James are very important because St. James itself, I think of it as an Intelligence Centre,” Aching said. “[The church] also worked with residents nearby to hide people and make sure that they were safe and had food, clothing and so on, just so they can head further north and escape.”

Many chose to stay in Ithaca, after finding the church accepting.

“If you go to the church today, it is a welcoming community,” Aching said.

190th anniversary celebrations

Poster for the 190th anniversary celebrations. Inbaayini Anbarasan/Ithaca Week

 The St. James A.M.E. Zion Church has been an important part of Ithaca’s community. The 190th-year celebrations were commemorated by various members of the community.

Alex Renzoni, member of the Dorothy Cotton Jubilee Singers, a community-based choral ensemble, attended these celebrations on Friday, Oct. 13. Renzoni said the event was led by congregation leaders.

“One of the pastors actually read a speech by Frederick Douglass himself as part of the service,” Renzoni said. “They also had another pastor come in, who is a Harriet Tubman impersonator, and she did a very, very compelling and moving piece on the experiences of Harriet Tubman, and kind of tying that into the history of the Church.”

The event was open to the public.

“I think in terms of the impact the church has had on Ithaca and in the community, I think that is very clearly reflected in the congregation that was there,” Renzoni said. “I think that really speaks to that this church is really a place of belonging for folks, regardless of race, regardless of background.”

The church structure, because of its age, has begun to show signs of its maturity. To upkeep its appearance and maintain its structure, the church members have started a restoration campaign.  The church also held a fundraising gala on Saturday, Oct. 14 to put toward the restoration campaign.

“We invited community leaders and stakeholders to have a night of elegance with live music,” King said. “We created a souvenir journal for those who supported us as a fundraiser for the church.”

St. James’ long-lasting impact

The church, despite its association with Christianity, is open to all members of Ithaca’s community, regardless of religion.

“The thing we have with churches and religion is we feel like we can’t invite other persons who don’t practice our religion into the church, which makes no sense to me,” King said. “Whether you believe in a God or whatever you believe in, we should all be able to commune and meet and talk and collaborate, regardless of what our faith practices are. We’re in this together. We are humans.”






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