Deadline looms for historic AME church

The Thomas Memorial AME Zion Church, 715 Morrison St., Watertown was deemed unsafe after the discovery of serious disrepair to the church’s steeple and chimney. Sydney Schaefer/Watertown Daily Times

WATERTOWN — A city official had hoped that someone would have come forward about the historic Thomas Memorial AME Zion Church on Morrison Street after it was deemed unsafe.

Carolyn Meunier, the city’s code enforcement supervisor, sent a copy of a Feb. 26 letter to the People’s AME Zion Church in Syracuse, in hopes that it would intervene in the situation before a deadline on Thursday.

“We haven’t heard anything,” she said.

Three weeks ago, the Code Enforcement Office inspected the exterior of the historic church at 715 Morrison St. to find out the church steeple and chimney are deteriorated and have become unattached to the building after receiving a citizen complaint.

The landmark church has a historic background and a connection to the city’s history to the Underground Railroad.

It also has a prior connection to the AME Zion church in Syracuse. In 2017, the Rev. Daren Jaime, who is pastor of the People’s AME Zion Church in Syracuse, came forward to pay $1,820.45 in back taxes for the local church.

So Mrs. Meunier thought that the Syracuse church would want to get involved once again, she said. Pastor Jaime did not return several phone calls from a Watertown Daily Times reporter.

The situation is complicated because the Thomas Memorial AME Zion Church closed several years ago, doesn’t have any members and there isn’t anyone to turn to about the situation.

Without anyone coming forward willing to help, Mrs. Meunier said the next step will be getting a search warrant to enter the building and analyze the damage. She and City Engineer Michael DeLaney would go inside the church to see if the damage could be repaired.

“It would be a shame for such a building to go, to be left to neglect,” she said.

For decades, William E. “Buster” Crabbe, the building undertaker and a church trustee, took care of the building until he passed away in 2017 at the age of 81. Mr. Crabbe was well-known for his involvement in educational programs on Black History Month and Watertown’s place in the history of the Underground Railroad.

While no one has come forward locally to try to save the church, two Underground Railroad enthusiasts in the state say they want to help.

The Rev. Paul Carter, site manager for the Harriet Tubman National Historic Park in Auburn, and Jacqueline Madison, board president of the North Country Underground Railroad Historical Association in Ausable Chasm in the Adirondack Mountains, said it would be a significant historical loss if the church was demolished.

The Rev. Carter, who preached in the church years ago, plans to let the AME Zion’s Western Annual Conference, which has jurisdiction over northern New York, know about what’s happening with the church.

Harriet Tubman was a member of the AME Zion Church. The national AME Zion Church operates the Tubman homestead.

Ms. Madison intends to contact the National Parks Directory to see what can be done. She’s involved in an Underground Railroad museum in Ausable Chasm.

While the building was erected in 1909, Watertown’s AME Zion Church traces its roots back to the Underground Railroad and runaway slaves.

At least one church associate was a freed slave. Professor Henry Barr escaped a Kentucky plantation before the Civil War, made it to Montreal and then moved to Watertown, where he became a member of the church when it was holding services at the meetinghouse at 446 River St. He died on Feb. 19, 1902, somewhere between the ages of 70 and 80.

Johnson Newspapers 7.1

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