WATERTOWN — While the historic landmark sat mostly ignored for years, Glenn Huggins took it upon himself to mow the grass and keep an eye on the Thomas Memorial AME Zion Church on Morrison Street, which has connections with the Underground Railroad.
And now the former member of the church might play a role in saving the church from demolition.
The Rev. Daren Jaime wants to meet with Mr. Huggins when the pastor of the People’s AME Zion Church in Syracuse drives up to Watertown this week to assess the church at 715 Morrison St.
“You can’t lose a church that’s a historic site,” Mr. Huggins said.
With the Rev. Jaime showing interest in the church, he remains hopeful that the Watertown church can be saved. The Rev. Jaime intends to report his findings to the AME Church’s Western New York Conference Trustees.
Mr. Huggins, 67, who was baptized at the church and was a longtime member, knows quite a bit about the church’s rich history. He thinks the building could be turned into a museum after its roof is repaired and other work is completed.
Even with the coronavirus pandemic keeping her in Florida, former SUNY Oswego history professor Judith Wellman is spearheading efforts to save the church. She and a small group of Underground Railroad enthusiasts have come together to see what they can do to preserve the church.
Getting Rev. Jaime involved is important, she said. Since 2017, the Syracuse church has been paying the church’s city taxes but this is the first time that he’s reached out to see what can be done.
“I’m really glad to hear that he has shown interest in the church,” she said. “I’ve worked with him. He’s a good person. He cares.”
The retired professor also credited Carolyn Meunier, the city’s code enforcement supervisor, for coming forward to help.
“I love history and plead with all of you to do what I cannot. Save this church,” Mrs. Meunier wrote to the group.
This past weekend, she saw Mr. Huggins parked in front of the church praying. Not to interrupt him, she waited until he finished and struck up a conversation about the church’s history.
The two then went inside, where she found the interior in better shape than she had thought. While she found mold and mildew inside, she wrote:
“Obviously the roof needs repairs; some of the exterior stone requires repointing; from what I’ve seen, it’s absolutely worth saving.”
She also was amazed by the condition of stained glass windows that she described as “remarkable” and “gorgeous.”
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.
In recent years, Mr. Huggins came forward to mow the grass and do what he could to maintain the property while it sat mostly forgotten.
“I took it on myself and my God, Jesus Christ, to keep up the church,” he said.
In March, 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 apparently became unattached to the building after receiving a citizen complaint.
Mrs. Meunier warned someone needed to come forward to save it.
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.