St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church held its first church service under a grapevine over 150 years ago.
Sitting on the corner of Merritt Mill Road and Franklin Street, the church has undergone multiple renovations over the last century and a half that give it the facade it has today: bricked walls, stained glass windows, blue carpeting, polished wooden pews and a 50-foot annex. Now the church is preparing to build St. Paul Village.
On Sunday morning, despite the misty rain and heavy skies, the congregation gathered to learn from the Rev. Mary Jane Palmer, the associate pastor, about how miracles can still occur. Even more families trickled in after the beginning of the service to hear the sermon.
“You go where the Lord sends you,” Palmer said during her service, followed with an occasional “yes” from the congregation as she preached.
She reminded the congregation that miracles won’t just occur in the church and that although there are white, black and Latino churches, God called the church to spread the Gospel throughout the world. And the congregation is doing just that.
It is planning on edifying a village, a multipurpose project intended to provide a place for worship, housing and health wellness. Chapel Hill has approved the project to be built in three phases, each expected to take three or four years.
The village, which will span almost 21 acres of land, is planned to be located on the corner of Rogers Road and Purefoy Drive. It will consist of a 48,000-square-foot housing development, a worship hall, a fellowship hall, a wellness center, a health clinic, an historical museum and a cemetery. In 2007, the church purchased the land this project.
“Our call and our vision is to reach out into the community and make a difference,” Palmer said later in an interview.
The Office of Planning and Sustainability of Chapel Hill said once the church submits the final plan application and the building permit, it can proceed with construction. The project is expected to cost between $25 and $28 million, which is being raised through community events and fundraising efforts.
“The St. Paul Village project is important to Chapel Hill because it is a worship campus with a mix of uses, providing a vibrant center of community activity for the Rogers Road neighborhood and affordable housing opportunities,” said Phil Mason, development manager for the Office of Planning and Sustainability, in an email.
Faye Farrar has been a church member of St. Paul since she was a baby. Her parents and grandparents always worshiped there.
“We were very close-knit,” Farrar said of her church growing up. “(Churches) were walking distances because that was one of the few options we had. You’re environment was limited.”
People didn’t live as spread out as they do now, she said.
She grew up in Northside, a historically African-American neighborhood in Chapel Hill. During her childhood, she witnessed the desegregation of neighborhoods and schools.
“During that time when we grew up there, there were select places where children and young people would go,” Farrar said. “And that would be church and school.”
Farrar is now a stewardess at St. Paul, which means she assists with Communions, baptisms and other special events like weddings and funerals.
“Religion was always a place for worship but also a place for learning,” Farrar said. “The whole person was the focus of the church.”
The church was a community center for African-Americans in town, she said.
Other church members have also been here for almost half a century. Celia Ponder has been a member for 20 years and is also a stewardess. Her late husband’s family has been a member at St. Paul for 40 years. Ponder remains a member of the church because the congregation feels like family.
“I feel missed,” Ponder said if she does not go to a service.
The AME church was established in Philadelphia in 1787 by slaves and former slaves in pursuit of practicing religion free of discrimination and racism.
Although the origins of the AME church were based on segregation, it now welcomes all people, Farrar said.
“Even though our beginning was because of separation and the inability to worship in the predominantly white congregations, because of (the AME church’s) status being nonwhite, at this time we have relationship with Chapel of the Cross and other congregations. We’re not segregated or separated from other denominations,” Farrar said.
Toward the end of the Sunday service, the congregation took communion. Rows one by one filed to the front of the church and kneeled to drink and eat the representations of the blood and body of Jesus Christ.