By Francesca Norsen Tate
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
The New York Landmarks Conservancy has awarded the Bridge Street African Wesleyan Methodist Episcopal Church a $6,500 grant to replace the roof over its sanctuary.
The funds are part of a total of $294,500 in Sacred Sites Grants presented by the conservancy to 23 historic relgious properties throughout the state.
Peg Breen, the conservancy's president said, “You don’t have to be religious to understand that religious institutions contain some of our finest art and architecture. Many also provide vital social service programs and cultural activities that make significant contributions to their communities."
The Bridge Street project will stop active leaks in flat roofs over the parish hall wing and near the tower. A past grant for the church helped fund consulting services to design and oversee roof replacement.
According to the monograph, “The History of the African Wesleyan Methodist Episcopal Church” by Dr. Amos M. Jordan, church historian, the church made its mark as the oldest continuing black congregation in Brooklyn. This unique congregation, in the heart of Bedford-Stuyvesant, was organized in 1766 and incorporated in 1818. It traces its missionary origins to Capt. Thomas Webb, a British convert of John Wesley and the father of Methodism in America.
A mixed congregation of Caucasians, free Negroes, and ex-slaves purchased land in 1794 from Joshua Sands and built a small church, the Sands Street Wesleyan Methodist Episcopal Church. The congregation grew rapidly and needed a larger place to worship. A new church building, completed in 1810, is named the First Methodist Episcopal Church of Brooklyn. It now has a mixed congregation of 1,500 members.
Unfortunately, the spirit of Christian charity between the blacks and whites deteriorated when the black membership surged. After the whites demanded that their fellow black brethren pay $10 per quarter to worship in the galleries, the latter group withdrew from the First Methodist Episcopal Church of Brooklyn and worshipped temporarily in one another’s homes.
The group that withdrew formed a society in May of 1817, to buy land for a church building. They chose trustees and sent a delegation to Bishop Richard Allen of the headquarters of the African Wesleyan Methodist Episcopal Church. The AWME Church agreed to send a preacher for the new church and to ordain several of the delegates as local preachers. In 1818, The certificate was approved by the court, and the First African Wesleyan Methodist Episcopal Church was incorporated in the Village of Brooklyn. In 1819, the church corporation purchased land on the east side of High Street near Jay Street, and built the First African Wesleyan Methodist Episcopal Church in Brooklyn.
The current church sanctuary of the Bridge Street African Wesleyan Methodist Episcopal Church had its own history and is formerly known as Grace Presbyterian Church. The oldest portion of the building, a simple gable-roofed chapel seating 600, dates from 1890. The cornerstone was laid in 1890, but within a few months of dedication, the building was reported to be in structural failure, with the south façade bulging, and steel ties were added to support the heavy roof. In less than 10 years, the congregation had outgrown the chapel and began fundraising for its replacement.
The Bridge Street AWME Church purchased this site in 1938.
The present church, constructed in 1907-1908, is at 221 Stuyvesant Ave. Brooklyn architects Woodruff Leeming and Chester Hughes Kirk designed the church, which incorporates the earlier chapel in the new, larger building, with a new buff brick and limestone façade. The structure is Gothic Revival in style, with shallow-pointed arched windows, a corner tower, buttresses, and monumental stained glass windows at the second floor sanctuary balcony, representing the life of Christ. The interior of the building is a loose T-plan, with the organ above the altar, and an auditorium plan sanctuary with a three-sided balcony. The timber sanctuary ceiling features pointed vaults, with neo-classical Corinthian columns supporting the sanctuary roof. The building is quite intact; minor alterations include the installation of faux-stone stucco trim at two entrance facades, circa 1970.
The Bridge Street AWME continues to be active in Bedford-Stuyvesant. The church sponsors meetings that address social, economic, educational, health needs and concerns of its members and the wider community. The church provides space for outreach programs including the Bridge Street After School Tutorial Center, the AME Missionary Free Food Program, which provides meals and clothing distribution, the Bridge Street Prison and Shelter Ministry, which provides Sunday worship at Riker's Island, offers Re-Entry and Mentoring programs, and supports prisoners' rights and changes in legislation.
The Bridge Street Development Corporation, a church affiliate, constructed and operates a 94-unit senior residence; renovated a 23-unit rental building three blocks from the church; provides financial advice to community residents; and acts as a local business incubator.
The Bridge Street Development Corporation assists residents in establishing credit, reducing their debt, making investments, securing low-interest mortgages and buying new homes. In addition, the Health and Wellness Commission works with various church organizations in planning and conducting health awareness.
The New York Landmarks Conservancy has been at the forefront of efforts to preserve, restore, and reuse New York City’s wonderful architectural legacy for nearly 40 years. Since its founding, the Conservancy has loaned and granted more than $36 million, which has leveraged more than $1 billion in restoration projects.