WILMINGTON, NC (WWAY) — The historic St. Stephen African Methodist Episcopal Church is celebrating 155 years in 2020.
The church was originally formed in 1865. It is believed to be the oldest black episcopal church in North Carolina that was built by a black congregation, for a black congregation.
By 1880, the membership outgrew the original wooden church. Free African Americans, former slaves, as well as some white people built the gothic structure that now stands at 5th and Red Cross Street. This building was completed in 1888.
In its time, the church has seen many notable guests. Including President William Howard Taft and Mary McLeod Bethune.
Senior Pastor Reverend Thomas O. Nixon says serving the church reminds him of its history.
“It really represents a history of a people who achieved so much with so little,” Reverend Nixon said.
He says its a testament to the faith of its builders.
“When you think about 1865 and what people of color during that time had. To look at this building and to see it today and to know it was built by people of 1865,” he said. “To me personally it is a testament of one’s faith, one’s belief in God that all things are possible.”
Reverend Nixon decided not only to celebrate on the church’s anniversary in October, but to celebrate all year long.
As a part of that celebration, he is recognizing the Pillars of the church. These are members 85 years old and up, the oldest being 96 years old. Members he considers to be the foundation of the church.
“To me, these people represent longevity,” Reverend Nixon said. “So often in life and in the community we wait until people pass to recognize them, to put something tangible in their hands.”
Leslie Sampson has been attending St. Stephen AME for 10 years. She says it’s her refuge.
“Sometimes I may not be feeling too well when I come in the door,” Sampson said. “But when I leave I feel so much better and that’s what it’s about.”
She may not have been at St. Stephen AME as long as some.
“I’ve been here since I was maybe 5 years old,” church member George Hawes said. “I’m 74 years old now and I’m still going.”
But she has found her home within the congregation.
“I love this church and its a blessing to have a church family,” Sampson said. “My heart is here.”