BROOKSVILLE — With roots dating back to 1870, Allen Temple AME Church is one of the oldest houses of worship in Hernando County.
The congregation will celebrate its 142nd anniversary beginning at 11 a.m. July 15 and invites the community to participate. The Rev. Paul B. Brown, a former pastor of the church, will present the sermon, and special music by the men's choir is planned.
"We'll have someone welcome the occasion and tell why we're celebrating and talk a little about the original history of the AME church," said Virginia Cox, who serves as the church's financial secretary and is part of the steward board.
A dinner in the fellowship hall will follow the service.
According to its official website — ame-church.com — the African Methodist Episcopal Church grew out of the Free African Society, which was established in Philadelphia in 1787. In response to racial discrimination within St. George Methodist Episcopal Church, the African-American members decided to form their own congregation. Although most wanted to affiliate with the Protestant Episcopal Church, Richard Allen, a former Delaware slave, and a small group resolved to remain Methodists, and in 1794 Allen became their pastor.
Today, the AME Church at large has membership in 20 Episcopal districts in 39 countries on five continents. The work of the church is administered by 21 active bishops and nine general officers.
Allen Temple's founder, the Rev. Thomas Warren Long, had also been a slave. Born in Jacksonville in 1832, he was a slave on a plantation there.
In 1863, Long joined the AME Church, which had developed and spread during the Civil War, in Hilton Head, S.C. He returned to Florida when the war ended and joined the Florida Conference of the church. In 1870, he was appointed presiding elder of the Jacksonville District, which at that time included the territory from Monticello to Jacksonville, and south to Tampa.
Long traveled on foot, organizing churches throughout his district, including one in Brooksville — Allen Temple AME.
Because pastors and officers of AME churches are appointed, and sometimes reappointed, to serve one year at a time, the church has had numerous pastors, including its current leader, the Rev. Tyrone Wheeler.
While the church was formed as an African-American church, Cox, who has belonged to the church since 1972, said that is no longer the case.
"That's how it was organized, but now we have a mixture of African-Americans, Caucasians and Spanish," said Cox, 65. "Many people who have children are coming now, so we have a younger congregation."
Ida Williams, 79, recalls walking with her parents and sister to attend services when the church was on Fort Dade Avenue.
"We lived one block over on Jefferson Street," Williams said. "I can remember the pastor that we had, Rev. Wallace, and I remember the man that played the piano, Mr. Harrington."
Williams said those are happy memories.
"We went to Sunday school, and we went to church," Williams said. "As we grew older, we went to what we called League in the afternoon. We would have to dress up, and it wasn't a question of whether you wanted to go; you were going. We were going to church, and that was the way it was."
Williams, who reared her family in the church and is currently the pro tem of the steward board, said that kind of devotion is missing today.
"I don't see the same dedication to God and church that we saw when we were growing up," she lamented. "Back then, it was serious business. If something was a sin, they didn't harp on it, but they told you in a way that you understood. Now they beat around the bush. You need to tell people what's in the Bible."
In the mid 1940s — at a time when a city zoning law was passed, forcing African-Americans to move out of parts of the city — a lot of people from the church moved to south Brooksville, Williams said, and the church moved as well.
In 1945, the trustees of the church purchased property at 824 Leonard St. A year later, the current sanctuary was completed under the leadership of the Rev. H. L. Newton. Later, a parsonage and a fellowship hall were added, and additional property was purchased behind the church.
Cox said the church today is interested in community outreach. It hosts vacation Bible school each summer, and for the last seven years has offered a food pantry and clothes bank for the needy.
"It's for anybody," Cox said about the food and clothing. "We have people that come from all over, and we serve about 100 people each distribution."
Williams hopes people from throughout the community will attend the anniversary celebration and get to know the members of the congregation.
"We are friendly and down to earth, and we try to focus on the important things, and that's God and building his kingdom," she said. "I hope that people will come so we can let them know more about us. Maybe they might want to join us."