In The Beginning
For more than one year a small group of AME Christians living in Rochester, NY traveled to Buffalo, NY to attend church services. In 1956, this group organized and began holding church meetings in Rochester. The members rotated meeting places between the homes of Mr Murray Allen, Ms Pauline Mack and Reverend Georgia Hughes. This group actively campaigned for members, and shortly, Mrs Artie Mae Turner, her daughters, Iris and Vivian, and Mr and Mrs William Dukes joined. Even though the group had begun worshiping at a home in Rochester, close ties were kept with the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Buffalo. As the group grew spiritually and in number it became necessary to find larger quarters for the purpose of worshiping. They began selling food from the small restaurant of Reverend Georgia Hughes in order to raise money. When the group saved adequate funding they began renting the Community Hall on Kelly Street. This is when Mr Jacqueline Logan Neal & family and Mrs Lessie Slater joined the very determined group.
An Affiliation with the First Episcopal District
The group now desired recognition as an AME Church and a connection to the First Episcopal District. In Early 1957, Mr Murray Allen (affectionately known as Bishop) sought the help of the Reverend Harry White Sr, Pastor of Bethel AME Church in Buffalo and the Presiding Bishop, The Rt Reverend John D Bright. Once the group grew to beyond 15 members (a charter) Bishop Bright gave the approval for an assistant Pastor from Buffalo to come to Rochester to serve the congregation. This Pastor was Reverend John W Beach. Reverend Beach immediately decided on a name for the congregation, “True Christian African Methodist Episcopal Church.” Brought before the Conference of 1957, it was approved and True Christian AME was now affiliated with the First Episcopal District and a new AME church family was born. Reverend Beach’s tenure was very brief and Reverend Albert White was appointed to lead the congregation. Reverend White served until 1959.
In Search of a Permanent Church Home
In 1959, the congregation moved to Herman Street where they shared a building with St Luke Baptist Church. The True Christian congregation and the St Luke congregation had joint services on Sundays and the Pastors alternated preaching the Sunday Sermons.
Reverend Parish J Cole was sent to Rochester by the Conference of 1959. Bishop George W Baber and Reverend Harry White Sr met with the congregation at 6 Vose Street, the home of Ms Pauline Mack, to discuss the future of the growing congregation. At this meeting the members voted to name the church family “Baber Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church,” in honor of the Presiding Bishop, The Rt Reverend George W Baber. Bishop Baber was also asked to visit a perspective new church home for the congregation at 62 North Union Street. Bishop Baber gave his approval on this same visit and, in early 1963, the congregation went into a joint agreement with the United Methodist Church to purchase 62 North Union Street. The United Methodist Church congregation was moving from the area into a new church that was still under construction. This agreement assured them of the sale to Baber Chapel, and the two congregations took turns holding services in the edifice. Baber Chapel held their services on Sunday afternoons. Once the necessary meetings took place, the approval was given to purchase the building for $42,000. Reverend Cole served as Pastor until 1963, and during the Conference that same year, Reverend Harry White Jr was appointed Pastor.
The first worship service in the new church home was held on August 15, 1963 at 10:45 am. The North Union Street property was in the area of the newly built inner loop, so parking was very limited. The primary parking spaces were provided across the street from the church. There was seating for 250 people in the main Chapel with an extension for 50 more in the rear Chapel.
Also in 1963, a cornerstone was laid on the front left corner of the building at 62 North Union Street. The names of Presiding Bishop, The Rt Rev George W Baber, Reverend Harry White Sr, Mr Murray Allen, Trustee, and Reverend Harry White Jr, Pastor was inscribed. Reverend White, Jr served as Pastor until 1964.
That same year, Reverend Ernest Doster was appointed Pastor, but his service was for only a few months. Bishop Baber quickly sent Reverend Vance Bethea to the Rochester congregation in an unofficial capacity. Under Reverend Bethea’s leadership, the membership increased steadily. The formal election of officers for the church official board was held in 1964. The congregation was of one mind and spirit and all members were dedicated to the upkeep of the property and to church growth. Under Reverend Bethea, the social and community life expanded. The Sisterhood Cross worship was initiated with the synagogue of Temple Beth-El of the Jewish community. The sharing of services and fellowship was excellent for cultural understanding, since Rochester had just experienced an emotional riot earlier in the year. During the 1965 Conference, Reverend Vance Bethea was officially appointed as Pastor of Baber Chapel.
Financially, things were not very sound, so the Trustee and Steward Boards agreed to allow the chapel to be rented on Sunday afternoons. The rental fees helped to underwrite some of the expenses. Reverend Bethea served as Pastor until 1968.
Devastation Touches Baber Chapel
In 1968, the Conference appointed the Reverend John A Cavers as Pastor. Reverend Cavers was instrumental in increasing the membership further and paying off the second mortgage on the property. This was also the year of the first of two fires at Baber Chapel. The first fire in the fall of 1968 damaged the rear of the edifice and the basement area. No one was injured in the fire, but many important church records were lost. Reverend Cavers Pastored at Baber Chapel until 1970.
From 1970 to 1971, Baber Chapel was without a Pastor, and the Reverend Dr Henry Mitchell was appointed as overseer of Baber Chapel. Under Dr Mitchell’s guidance, several young ministers from Colgate Divinity School in Rochester served as interns to keep the congregation moving forward. The interns were Reverend John H Dixon, Reverend Louis Harvey, Reverend John D Jones, and Reverend John Bright Jr.
In 1971, the Conference appointed Reverend John D Jones as Pastor. Under Reverend Jones, the Baber Chapel congregation grew to new spiritual heights. Reverend Jones served until 1976.
In 1976, the second fire swept through the Baber Chapel edifice. Again no one was hurt in the fire, but this time the building was uninhabitable for several weeks. The entire building was either fire or smoke damaged. Firemen shattered the beautiful antique stained glass windows as they worked to extinguish the flames.
The congregation dwindled from this, and a few dedicated members struggled to keep the Baber Chapel AME family together. Times were very hard then, but the group remained faithful and came through it all much stronger and more determined. Mr Benjamin McBride, a member of Baber Chapel and Head of Security at the Educational Opportunity Center (EOC) building in Rochester, made it possible for the congregation to hold services at that building until Baber Chapel was restored.
Reverend Raymond Pennerman was appointed Pastor of Baber Chapel by the Conference in 1976. He was the astute leader who steered the members back into their home at 62 North Union Street. Reverend Pennerman served until 1978.
Baber Chapel Continues Organization and Growth
In 1978, Reverend Bealie Stancil was appointed Pastor of Baber Chapel. Under Reverend Stancil’s leadership, the Official Church Board meetings were organized and refined, and the church finances greatly improved. The Stewardess Board was rededicated, and white vestments and head coverings were added for the sacrament service. The congregation celebrated the burning of the first mortgage on August 5, 1979, in the spirit of “Through It All.” Reverend Stancil’s tenured lasted until 1981.
In 1981, the Conference appointed Reverend Dr John H Dixon to Baber Chapel. Reverend Dixon was the visionary. He had a vision of outgrowing 62 North Union Street and moving to a larger facility where the ministry could expand into the community. Reverend Dixon set his sites on the edifice at 550 Meigs Street and the New York Annual Conference was again petitioned. This congregation was not unfamiliar to the Presiding Bishop, The Rt Reverend Richard Allen Hilderbrand, since he was a Trustee to the Conference who secured the original mortgage for Baber Chapel in 1963. Bishop Hilderbrand and Presiding Elder Vernon Lowe were instrumental in arranging financing for the purchase of the property at 550 Meigs Street. On May 25, 1982, the purchase of 550 Meigs Street closed for $250,000. The property at 62 North Union was then sold for $100,000.
Walking to a New Beginning
In a historic march of the masses, Reverend Dixon led the members to their new home in a “New Beginning.” The first sermon preached was “A Father’s Love.” The text was taken from St Luke 15; the scripture subject was “The Prodigal Son.”
The new edifice at 550 Meigs Street had seating accommodation for 700 people in the lower sanctuary and 300 people in the balcony. The property holding contained a separate building with room for expansive parking.
The dedication service was held on September 18, 1982, with the Rt Reverend Richard Allen Hilderbrand, Bishop of the First Episcopal District, presiding. Also in attendance at this service was the Reverend Harry White Sr, a longtime friend and advisor of the Baber Chapel congregation. At this service, the name of the congregation was officially changed to Baber African Methodist Episcopal Church. Reverend Dixon served as Pastor until 1991. During his tenure the congregation had grown in great numbers.
Baber Expands into the Rochester Community
In 1991 the conference appointed Reverend Norvel Goff Sr. as pastor. In Reverend Goff’s tenure Baber purchased the Christian Life Center at the corner of Meigs Street and Clinton Street, the Administration Building at 560 Meigs Street, and the parsonage. Baber also installed an elevator to transport members between the church’s three levels, renovated the sanctuary and Pastor’s office and watched 17 men and women respond to the call to preach. Baber hosted the 171st Session of the New York Annual Conference and the Second Session of the Western New York Annual Conference.
In Rochester, Reverend Goff established the Baber Center for Social Change and Economic Development, founded the Faith Minister’s Alliance, established the Clergy-Law Enforcement Council and served as president and CEO of the Greater Rochester Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored Persons (NAACP). His accomplishments were often herald in the church and the community.
On January 9, 2005, the Reverend Marlowe VN Washington was assigned the Pastorate of Baber. Under the leadership of Reverend Washington, the Baber Center for Social Change and Economic Development merged into Rise Up Rochester, Inc. – a human service agency that provides support to crime victims and their families working to establish and maintain a nonviolent culture. Reverend Washington also led an anti-no snitching campaign that erected billboards throughout the city of Rochester called, “You Bet I Told.”
A New Day Arises
On June 18, 2010, the Reverend James C. Simmons became the 14th pastor of Baber. Since Reverend Simmons’ appointment Baber has experienced a much needed spiritual, financial and administrative resurrection. For example, the parsonage mortgage has been retired, the administrative building mortgage has been retired, the worship center mortgage had been renegotiated with a local bank, and Baber’s deficit has been paid in full.
In Pastor Simmons’ tenure Baber has also installed a projection system, new roofs have been placed on the worship center and parsonage, the sanctuary has been renovated, countless needed repairs, purchases and improvements have been made and Baber hosted the 16th and 19th Session of the Western New York Annual Conference. Pastor Simmons continues to valiantly lead Baber under the mantra “There is Nothing too Hard for God” derived from 2nd Kings 3:18.