WATERTOWN — Alice J. Crabbe is saddened that the church her late husband tried to save is in such jeopardy.
Before he died in 2017, William E. “Buster” Crabbe, the building caretaker and a church trustee, did everything he could to see that the Thomas Memorial A.M.E. Zion Church on Morrison Street could survive.
But Mrs. Crabbe wasn’t surprised to hear that the city’s Code Enforcement office found the building is unsafe. She now hopes somebody steps in to try to save the building.
“It would take an angel to come down to take care of it,” she said. “But that’s what angels are supposed to do.”
It’s been several years since any church services were held at the church that has ties to the Underground Railroad and is on the National Registry of Historic Places.
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.
“He was quite a character,” said Don Papson, who with his wife, Vivian, founded the North Star Underground Railroad Museum in Ausable Chasm in the Adirondack Mountains.
Mrs. Crabbe remembered when the last members of the church died or moved away. They were members of black families who lived in and around the Morrison Street neighborhood on the city’s north side.
She and her husband, an Army veteran, were friends with many of them.
“I’m very sad. He did everything he could do for the church,” she said. “He knew he was going to be the last man to lock the doors.”
After recently receiving a complaint from a neighborhood resident, the city’s Code Enforcement Office inspected the exterior of the historic church, 715 Morrison St., to find out the church steeple and chimney are deteriorated and have become detached from the building.
Code Enforcement officials wrote a letter to the church because they want to talk to someone about its condition and to arrange to get inside to see what should be done with the building.
But city officials say that they have no actual contact to send the letter to because it’s been years since the Thomas Memorial AME Zion Church has had any members.
While the building was erected in 1909, the landmark has a historic background and a connection to the city’s history to the Underground Railroad. There could have been more former slaves than Mr. Barr, Mr. Papson said.
“It has important historic significance because of the black families who lived the neighborhood,” he said.
Mr. Papson visited the AME church a few years ago when its fate was in doubt then, too.
For decades, Mrs. Crabbe’s husband 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.
The church had lost its nonprofit church status from the city after it had not been used as a church for more than a year. And with Mr. Crabbe’s death, the property taxes went unpaid. At the time, it appeared the city could end up owning the building because of the situation of the back taxes.
It became “a big concern,” with the National Parks Directory getting notified, Mr. Papson said. That’s when he came to Watertown to visit the church.
On that day, he noticed the church’s dedication stone had the date of Aug. 1, an important date in the history of the Underground Railroad. That was the day in 1834 when the British ended slavery, he said.
“When I saw that, I knew that they knew the importance of Aug. 1,” he said. “I knew that they got it.”
In the end, the Rev. Darin C. Jaime of the People’s AME Zion Church in Syracuse, stepped in and paid off the $1,820.45 in back taxes. The taxes are now current.
Over the years, there were other connections between the local AME church and the People’s AME Zion Church in Syracuse, remembered Roland Van Deusen, a former Watertown Human Rights Commission chairman who attended several services at the Watertown church before it closed.
The Syracuse church brought up Pastor Jaime and some choir members to offer services for a while, Mr. Van Deusen recalled.
But then their visits stopped.
“Late-comers to the services and driving in from Clayton, we didn’t know the reason. Services were small, with neighbors on Morrison Street attending during the time we worshipped there,” he said.
Mr. Van Deusen and Mr. Crabbe were longtime friends. He started attending services at the AME church with his wife Nancy because of their friendship. They went to each other’s weddings and were close for years.
“We felt a spiritual refill with each service. Part of it was re-connecting with Buster, whom we loved,” he said.
“Buster could always make me laugh. He was very civically active and socially conscious. He’d fought for his country, but said he was shot in Baltimore. A big guy, he had two brothers in Harrisburg, Pa. who were bigger. In some ways, he was larger than life, tough on the outside, but warm on the inside.”
After the church’s heyday, Mrs. Crabbe said her husband of 52 years kept the church and its history alive for as long as he could. He organized golf tournaments and chicken dinners fundraisers, did repairs on the building and helped arrange church services.
She’s reminded of those days whenever she drives by the deteriorating Morrison Street church.
“I miss him,” she said.
He was well liked in the community. A local funeral home was packed for his funeral, Mr. Van Deusen said.
After it closed, the Syracuse church took ownership of a lot of the Thomas Memorial church’s historical documents. She wondered about the documents and why the Syracuse congregation have them. Pastor Jaime did not return a reporter’s phone calls.
Mr. Papson wonders what is going to happen to the church building.
“Somebody in the community has to get involved, raise money and take responsibility,” he said.
If that doesn’t happen, Watertown will lose all of that history forever, he said.