- Associated Press - Saturday, June 13, 2015

NORRISTOWN, Pa. (AP) - Members of Ebenezer Methodist Church, along with Quakers in the area, played a major part in helping runaway slaves travel from Maryland and Delaware to safe havens in New York.

The 175th anniversary of the church, the oldest African American church in Norristown located at the same address, will be celebrated this year with many special events.

The red-brick church with leaded-glass, round-arch windows was built at 234 E. Spruce St. in 1872. When the church was first formed in 1840, several black families that were part of the Mount Zion AME Church in Norristown broke away from the Willow Street church to form Ebenezer. The reason for the schism is not known today.

“My great grandmother, the late Suzie Horoton, and Horoton’s mother formed the church with other people,” said Michael Young of Philadelphia, a current Ebenezer church member. “They became very active in the local abolition movement.”

Members of the church, along with Quakers in the area, played a major part in helping runaway slaves travel from Maryland and Delaware to safe havens in New York, Young said. When Young was a child, his great-grandmother talked about where in the basement the runaway slaves were hidden in the house.

The first church building, a modest frame structure, was located on Leitenberg Alley behind the present brick building in 1840. The church was started by the Rev. Thomas Gibbs and his wife when the couple opened their house to black Norristown residents and former slaves who escaped from the south.

The frame building was converted to a stone structure in 1852 at a cost of $875, according to “The Second Hundred Years of Montgomery County.” It became part of the African Union Methodist Protestant Church movement, chartered in 1813, under the leadership of the Rev. Peter Spencer in Delaware.

“The present building was built in 1872 and $13,500 was raised for the construction work,” said Bishop Albert Jarman Sr. “There are no records of who built the building and there are no blueprints for its construction.”

Jarman said that because there were no building blueprints to give to state authorities, the church was not allowed to have a day care center in the church. Education officials wanted the building plans to insure the safety of children.

When the Ebenezer Methodist Church was built in 1872, the Hancock School across the street had not been built yet. The church building was surrounded by open fields.

“The only thing here (before the church) was a farm belonging to the Thomas family,” Jarman said.

The church has provided spiritual and moral support to the African American community throughout its history.

“This is a legacy that needs to be nurtured. There are not a lot of people that know about this,” said Young, a retired procurement officer for the Philadelphia Housing Authority. “For too long African Americans, and their contributions to society, have been overlooked. Our members have been the pillars of the community including doctors and lawyers.”

During World War I members of Ebenezer Methodist, Mount Zion AME and Siloam Baptist Church accompanied 25 “colored soldiers” as they marched to the DeKalb Street station of the Reading railway on Oct. 27, 1917, on their way to Camp Meade, Maryland, for training, according to a newspaper account in the Norristown Daily Herald.

The soldiers came from Penllyn, Jeffersonville, Ambler, Valley Forge, Swedeland, Hatboro and Norristown. Before their sendoff at the train station, about 500 people took part in a street parade down DeKalb to Fourth Street in Bridgeport and “countermarching to the DeKalb Street station.” On the station platform members of the three churches sang “God Will Take Care of You,” ”Take the Name of Jesus with You” and “America.”

On Feb. 27, 1927, 350 members of the Ku Klux Klan, “attired in the full regalia of that organization,” joined about 300 members of Ebenezer Methodist Church in “a friendly joint religious service” at the church, according to a newspaper account. J.F. Cain of Norristown, field representative of the Klan in Montgomery and Delaware counties, described the Klan’s position as “absolutely drawing the line at intermarriage of white and colored people and urged better education of the Negroes.”

The Klansmen were “present on the invitation of the official board and the pastor, Rev. C.N. Walker,” the newspaper said.

The church building has been listed in the National Register of Historic Places since 1984 as a “contributing resource” within the central Norristown Historic District. In early May members of the church began a fundraising drive to pay for a stone marker to commemorate the historic designation.

“The trustees have made a commitment to raise the funds outside the church,” said Ernest Hadrick Jr., the president of the trustee board. “I’m confident we are going to get there.”

The cost estimates for the marker range from $1,500 to $3,500, plus the costs of installation, Hadrick said.

Hadrick was elected to the trustee board in June 2014 and elevated to president in March. His father, Ernest Hadrick Sr., served as trustee president from 1965 to 1977.

Many of the 175th anniversary celebrations and special services have been scheduled in June on successive Wednesday evenings. The Rev. Mark Tyler of Mother Bethel AME Church in Philadelphia will lead the service on June 17. The Rev. Al Sharpton of New York will lead an ecumenical celebration at 7 p.m., June 26, at Eisenhower Science & Technology Leadership Academy, 1601 Markley St., Norristown. On June 28, the church membership will hold a joint anniversary service at 10 a.m. at the church. The service will be followed by a fellowship luncheon at Westover Country Club in West Norriton.

On the first Sunday when Jarman came to preach at the church 28 years ago, about 150 members of the congregation came to greet him, he said.

“The membership has gone up and down over the years. This is a transient community,” Jarman said. “One year 21 students left for college. It took a long time to replace them.”

Ebenezer Methodist Church has about 300 members today. The congregation worships on Sundays at 8:30 a.m. and 10:30 a.m. services. A bible study class led by Bishop Jarman and other teachers meet on Wednesday evenings. A men’s meeting is held on Thursday nights. A noon time bible study group meets every other Wednesday.

The church leadership is planning a banquet for late September to conclude the summer celebration of the 175th anniversary.

At the 150th anniversary celebration in 1990, Jarman read a biblical passage about Solomon’s Temple.

“God not only dwells in places we build,” Jarman said. “No matter how much stained glass you have, how thick the carpet is or how soft the padding on the pews is, if God isn’t in the house, you don’t have a church.”

According to stories published in The Times Herald, at the time of the 1990 celebration, the church had more than 400 members, five choirs and 12 auxiliaries. A church history compiled by anniversary committee chairwoman Lori Hadrick was read by church secretary Gladys Cozart.

“Ebenezer Methodist Church traces its roots to 1844, when the congregation met in different homes, one of which was known to be in the 200 block of East Elm Street. Its main purpose was to teach and to assist in the struggle against slavery. By 1849, the congregation had grown to 49 members. In June of that year, the first church building was erected at Elm and Arch streets …The basement served as a refuge for many runaway slaves as part of the underground railroad. The church was originally known as Israel Methodist Protestant Ebenezer Church. The name became Ebenezer African Union First Colored Methodist Protestant Church of Norristown upon receipt of its charter in October of 1869.”

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Online:

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Information from: The Times Herald, https://www.timesherald.com/


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