Church buildings are integral to their surrounding communities in ways both large and small.
The Allen AME church’s experience is shared by churches across the United States. But not every church need face these kinds of challenges in the same way. Central Commons in Dallas, Texas, took a different approach. In an effort to revitalize a historic church building to benefit both the surrounding community, Central Christian Church’s 19th-century building now offers space to everyone as Central Commons — space for events, worship, and local businesses like West Side Coffee.
According to Central Commons’ Annual Report in June 2023, the problems churches in the U.S. face are well represented by these:
3,700 churches are closing annually in the United States
80% of American churches are in plateau or decline
Allen African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in Cape May, New Jersey, was at a crossroads, with member numbers dwindling to just six elderly members. The church’s historic building, built in 1888, had a leaking roof, among other issues needing attention. Lifelong Cape May resident and Allen AME member of over 80 years, Emily Dempsey had tried to raise money to sustain the church. But everything changed in 2018 when a fire interrupted any progress the building had seen in recent years.
On a Saturday in June, a moving truck caught and pulled a nearby utility pole into the church’s steeple. The steeple caught fire, and the fire burned just shy of two hours, causing serious damage to the bell tower and parts of the church’s interior.
Unsurprisingly, the fire forced the church to close its doors. But it may be the reason the building still stands. The building is expected to reopen in the spring of 2024, though for a different purpose. It will be rented and maintained by the local East Lynne Theater Company.
As for the Allen AME Church, though summer visitors to Cape May would increase attendee numbers temporarily, the congregation was dying out before the fire, Dempsey said in an interview for Common Good. Plus, the building needed renovations. The church already had buckets throughout the pews for water that was leaking through the roof.
After the fire, some of the few remaining church members held Sunday services at a member’s home, while others began to join other congregations in the area. “There weren’t enough members to do much, [so] some went to the United Methodist Church on Washington Street, and some went to the Matriarchs at the Macedonia Church,” Dempsey said.
It seemed unlikely the church would meet again in its longtime home. But the building was too important to fall — for not only the church members but also the larger community of Cape May.
For Dempsey, it was the church where she grew up, where her mother, Sara Edgecombe, was superintendent of the Sunday school, and where she was baptized. “I like talking about the history because I’m one of the few remaining who lived it,” she said.
For the city, the Allen AME Church on Franklin Street is one of a few remaining historic sites after much of the African American history in the area was lost during an earlier period of urban renewal. The church itself is a symbol of freedom there, built by Stephen Smith, a Black businessman who owned several properties in town in the late 19th century. An abolitionist and a leader of the Black community, he bought his own freedom from slavery for $50 and subsequently assisted the work of the
To honor this history, when Mayor Zack Mullock came into office in 2020, he made it a priority for the city to buy the building. “I thought it would be such a shame for something so beautiful and an anchor to the community to be demolished because of a fire that only hurt the bell tower itself,” he said in an interview for Common Good. “The point being it’s a repairable issue in
In 2021, Preservation New Jersey named the Allen AME Church one of the state’s 10 most endangered historic places, which made the site safe from demolition (and from a transformation into a parking lot, a critical need in the tourist town). The city of Cape May purchased the church building in 2021, adding to the restoration efforts already underway.
“I’m just so excited to see [this area] renewed,” Mullock said. “The entire block between the library — the Fireman’s Hall History Museum, the Greater Cape May Historical Society, the Harriet Tubman Museum, and the Allen AME church — is really going to be the downtown arts and culture area of Cape May.”
That the Allen AME Church building survived the fire was not enough to secure its future — especially since the congregation was already reduced to a membership in the single digits. Though the congregation dispersed, the legacy of the church will live — the stained glass windows dating to the 1920s have already been restored and still feature founding church members’ names. And perhaps the building will be home to a congregation again. Until then, thanks to the community of Cape May, it’s in good hands.