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Historic Chandler church gets OK to rebuild

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At Mt. Olive Missionary Baptist Church, one of Chandler’s oldest black churches, the roof is warped, the walls are cracked and the floor is uneven, but attendance is high, and so are hopes for the future.

Last Thursday, the Chandler City Council voted to approve design plans to raze and rebuild the 71-year-old church at 473 S. Colorado Street in a historically low-income, racially mixed neighborhood southeast of downtown.

Raising the money for the project, however, is proving to be something of a sticking point, said Coy Payne, a long-time Mt. Olive congregant and Chandler’s first black mayor. Church members have been working to gather enough money to cover the estimated $750,000 price tag, he said.

“We have been hard-pressed to do that,” Payne said. “We aren’t even halfway to that goal.”

The issue has been somewhat divisive for the church, he said. While Payne favors taking out a bank loan to get the project done, others have said it makes more sense to buy vacant land elsewhere and build from scratch.

“Some members felt we ought to scrap the idea and sell the place,” Payne said of the city-approved redevelopment plans.

The contributions might come more easily once everyone is on the same page, he said. “Some people hesitate to sign on the dotted line.”

HUMBLE BEGINNINGS

Mt. Olive dates back to 1938, when 10 neighborhood residents would gather in a tent for services on a vacant lot on Saragosa Street, said La’Von Woods, church secretary and historian. Its first pastor was Moses Howard.

Back then, baptisms were done in a nearby canal, said Woods, the great-granddaughter of Nathan Harris, who served as chauffeur to city founder A.J. Chandler.

“I was raised in this church,” she said. “This has always been home for me.”

Many of the neighborhood’s early black residents were sharecroppers in Texas and Oklahoma who came to Chandler to work in the fields.

“All of them that came here during that time, they came to pick cotton,” Woods said.

In the 1940s, E.R. James became pastor and the congregation moved the wooden structure that had replaced the original tent to the church’s existing location on Colorado Street. Soon after, congregation members rebuilt the historic church with their own hands. It was added to over the years, but it essentially remains the same today.

The structure was built with warped wood that had been donated by a local lumber company, Woods said. Over the years, people have often commented that it looks like it might collapse.

“We went on and built with it because it’s all we had. It looks like it’s going to fall, but it’s not,” Woods said.

Worshippers have for years been baptized in an immersion pool built behind the church’s pulpit, she said.

Payne said Mt. Olive is second only to Grace Memorial Church of God, a nearby Pentecostal congregation at 233 E. Morelos Street, as Chandler’s oldest black church.

PRESERVING HISTORY

On Oct. 18, Mt. Olive celebrated its 72nd anniversary.

These days, most of the church’s roughly 200 members live outside the neighborhood, but the congregation remains predominantly black with a few white and Hispanic families, Woods said.

The City Council voted to rezone the site, clearing the way for the church’s potential redevelopment, and to create parking on vacant lots to the east and west. Under the new design plans, the church would keep roughly the same shape, but it would be rebuilt with a larger sanctuary and fellowship hall. The new building would be up to city code and would include artistic features such as a new entryway and more glass.

Woods said it’s unclear when the project might happen.

“It’s all got to do with money,” she said.

She said she doesn’t think the church will lose its history by moving into a new building.

“You’ve got all of this oral history you continue to hand down,” Woods said. “The stories live in the membership. History is important to us.”

Payne, who has been with the church since age 13 and raised his six children with the congregation, said the new structure, if it gets built, could hold between 300 and 500 people. The existing church often has a full house for Sunday services, and sometimes extra space is needed. But having more space isn’t an immediate necessity, he said.

He said he’s not worried about the church losing its history, either.

“My feeling about Mt. Olive has always been that it is a beacon of hope to the neighborhood. There have been a lot of people to come out from the dark and into the light at Mt. Olive,” Payne said. “There is a close-knit family there. There is a spirit there that encourages people to come. That will never die.”

© 2009 Freedom Communications / Arizona. Displayed by permission. All rights reserved.

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