by Bill Batson
Men and women who survived American slavery built St. Charles African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in Sparkill in 1865. This sanctuary is a monument to a church movement that included abolitionists Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass. Led by Rev. Louis Sanders since 1981, St. Charles is directly linked to the period of history chronicled in the Oscar-nominated film 12 Years a Slave.
When Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o’clock on Sunday morning,” he was reflecting on the racial dynamic that led to the creation of Zion Methodism. Sadly, King was describing the state of race relations in the mid-20th century. The legal and cultural customs that discouraged mixed-race religious observance have been a constant feature in American history.
In her exhaustive and exquisite 1983 history of her church and denomination, Jacqueline L. Holland wrote about the conditions facing black Christians in 18th century New York. “There were spots of negro membership in white churches, but it was fashion to segregate them. Negroes were seated in the back of the church, or in the balcony.”
Holland notes that after a slave revolt in New York City in 1712 “whites exhibited a common fear of slave organizations of any kind.” When black congregations sought to hold their own services on Sunday evenings after their European breathren were done worshiping, a motion was adopted at a Methodist congress that said “we don’t want negroes meeting alone together in our church at night.”
In order to have unfettered rights of religious expression, an African Methodist Episcopal Church was founded in New York City in 1796. In 1822, James Varick, who was born in Newburgh, NY, was ordained as the first Bishop of the AME Zion Church.
From its inception, the AME Zion Church was an active participant in the struggle to abolish slavery. According to Holland’s account, “The Underground Railroad was practically a church movement.” The Underground Railroad was a euphemism for a clandestine network of individuals and institutions that helped slaves escape from legalized bondage in the American south.
St. Charles was built in 1865 by Rev. William Thompson, an itinerant minister who came from New York City. Holland reports that “St. Charles AME Zion Church families can trace some of the family names” from the First AME Zion church in New York City.
Rev. Louis E. Sanders
In 2014, The Rev. Louis E. Sanders, senior pastor of St. Charles A.M.E. Zion received the Buffalo Soldier Award from County Executive Ed Day.
The award is named after the all-black members of the 10th cavalry regiment that fought in Kansas in 1866 and is given to African American veterans.
Sanders, who hails from Plymouth, North Carolina, holds a bachelors degree from North Carolina A & T State University, a masters of science from City University of New York and a masters of divinity from Union Theological Seminary.
Sanders rose to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in the United States Air Force Chaplaincy and served actively as recently as Operation Desert Storm.
He has taught for 30 years at Tuckahoe High School in Eastchester, New York. He and his wife, Connie Hale, have three daughters and one granddaughter.
Most of the almost 200 congregants of the historic church live outside Sparkill; in Nyack, Stony Point, Haverstraw, Northern New Jersey and New York City.
Original members of St. Charles were also drawn from a community of free black settlers who lived in an area known as Skunk Hollow. Skunk Hollow encompassed land that includes the Palisades, Piermont, Sparkill and Closter.
St. Charles faces Ferdon Pond, where a black man named John Moore built and operated a mill in the early 1800s. According to historian Dr. Lori Martin, Moore also constructed mill wheels that were said to have produced blankets for soldiers fighting in the Civil War and were used widely throughout Rockland County. Moore’s daughter, Cynthia Hesdra, became a successful businesswoman in her own right, owning property in New York City and Nyack.
Hesdra was also rumored to have used her properties as stations in the Underground Railroad. Piermont Avenue between Hudson and Depew Avenue in Nyack is named for Hesdra, who owned a parcel of land near what is now Memorial Park.
Laurence H. Holland, the brother-in-law of the author of the history of St. Charles, made a material contribution to the church of historic proportions. A chemist at Lederle Labs in Pearl River from 1941-1991 and NAACP leader, Holland won a large lottery prize in the late 1980’s. His generous donations helped finance efforts to renovate and add to the original structure. A fellowship hall was named in honor of Laurence’s brother, Albert Jr., an attorney, who was a respected civil rights leader.
“I was privileged to work as the architect for the addition and restoration with a building committee of outstanding individuals including Rev. Sanders, Leonard Cooke, Albert Holland, Clarence Branch and others,” said President of the Historical Society of the Nyacks, Winston Perry. “Wherever possible, we preserved and restored the architectural features of the historic church building,” Perry said.
Inside St. Charles is a library and museum that contains the history of the men and women who not only survived the most outrageous aspects of American racism, but managed to build an institution that continues to seek to reverse the most pernicious effects of slavery and discrimination.
As historians, builders, advocates, and philanthropists , generations of St. Charles members have constructed a secure vessel to pursue freedom and justice for themselves and others. To paraphrase the inscription at the base of Dr. King’s monument in Washington: with their faith, the members of St. Charles hewed out of the mountain of despair, a stone church of hope.
A copy of Jacqueline L. Holland’s “The History of St. Charles African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church: A Manifestation of the Black Church in America” is available in the local history room of the Nyack Library.
You can purchase copies of Martin’s book, The Ex-Slave’s Fortune: The Story of Cynthia Hesdra on line here or you can also find it on the shelf at the Nyack Library
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