Great Barrington — Fran O’Neill will do anything for the Clinton A.M.E. Zion Church building across the street from her home on Elm Street and, these days, that is one tall order as the church grows increasingly savaged by water and mold.
I’m standing with O’Neill and Selectboard member Ed Abrahams at the corner of Main and Railroad streets. O’Neill said she started attending the church when she moved here 50 years ago: “I never missed a month of church except when I was in the hospital.”
O’Neill is a Great Barrington icon, known for the stroller she uses to carry her things around town, her “I love Jesus” hat, and her propensity to grab peoples’ hands on the street and deliver a mini sermon on the spot before blessing them.
“I write most of these in the middle of the night,” she said, after telling us, “respect is always appropriate for any entity in life. And if you disagree [with something], just keep walking.”
It was O’Neill who inspired Abrahams’ personal quest to save the historic Clinton African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, the first built in Berkshire County as a place of worship for African-Americans streaming into the area from the South in the mid-1800s. The congregation began to take shape in the 1860s, but fundraising difficulties pushed the completion to 1887.
“I was walking down the street one day, and ‘Nana Fran’ praised Jesus a few times and said, ‘something needs to be done to save the church,’ ” Abrahams said, noting he is not doing this as a town official. “I started talking to people and everyone is saying, ‘something needs to be done.’ ”
It’s an important place. Great Barrington native and African-American author, scholar and civil rights leader W.E.B. Du Bois attended the church as a child, according to University of Massachusetts history professor and Du Bois scholar David Glassberg. Glassberg said, as a teenaged reporter “who always liked to write,” Du Bois wrote about the women’s social circles at the church. “He used to do society snippets,” he added.
The Du Bois Center at UMass owns the W.E.B. Du Bois National Historic Site on Route 23 for which Glassberg organizes tours by graduate students. But there is no place on the site for an indoor exhibit, he said, and so hopes at least part of the church could be used for one.
It was this church that influenced Du Bois’ thinking “about the central role of the church in the African-American community,” wrote David Levinson on the friends of the church’s Facebook page. “As a scholar he pioneered the study of the Black Church.”
The church, Levinson added, “was the singular place where the African-American community could come together to unite long-time residents of the community and newcomers from the South and chart its own destiny…whose pastors could and did speak for the African-American community.”
The church is registered as an important site on the Upper Housatonic Valley African American Heritage Trail and on the National Register of Historic Places.
But this place is in trouble. It’s on the market for $119,000, and already one contract to buy fell through because it needed more work than the buyer could handle. It has structural problems and a roof leak that has led to a devastating mold infestation.
Glassberg was involved in the search for a buyer, and said he reached out to people he knew and had been giving advice. He concluded it was “too big a job for one person to do, though maybe this person should have formed a nonprofit and brought in more people.”
Abrahams said $100,000 to $150,000 is needed to buy the church and secure the roof before winter.
“I’m on the committee for praying it doesn’t snow in November,” he joked.
Abrahams picked the brains of two experienced local developers. One said a church overhaul would run about $300 to $400 per square foot, translating to a total of about $800,000. Another, who has experience rehabbing old churches, pegged it at anywhere from $600,000 to $800,000.
Abrahams also spoke to local activist Beth Carlson about how to pull together a team to save the church, and now Carlson “is doing a lot of the legwork,” he said.
He and Carlson have organized a meeting for this Saturday (November 5) in the Community Room of the Mason Library to form a committee and define roles. “I sent out an email to everyone I could think of,” he said. “It’s a pretty big list.”
He said the meeting is for nailing down things like getting a lawyer and people to do the paperwork for things like historic tax credits or Community Preservation Act funds.
Abrahams said he’s determined to roll the ball to “make this happen,” before he steps away. “What goes on inside building after it’s fixed is not for me to decide, especially as a white Jew,” he said drily, with a grin.
Glassberg said that, whatever is decided about the space, “even if it becomes a restaurant,” he’d like to see a partnership with the church preservation groups in Great Barrington to find a way to create an exhibit. “There’s no indoor place where you can learn about Du Bois,” he said, adding that the downtown location makes sense because Du Bois lived in a number places there.
Glassberg also noted that, before the building fell apart and it was still under Rev. Esther Dozier’s care, it was where the annual Du Bois birthday celebrations were held. He said there was enormous turnout for those.
A walk through the church now is not for the mold-sensitive or faint-of-sinuses. The 1929 addition at the rear is in the most trouble as the ceiling falls in, paint peels and mold spreads.
“The addition may have to go,” Abrahams said.
Abrahams also noted that time was of the essence for the church as well as its current owners, the Eastern Conference A.M.E. Zion Church.
“It’s not a church anymore,” he said. “So there’s no more tax exemption. And when it falls apart, it will be worthless in my unprofessional opinion.”
While Fran O’Neill loves this particular church and wants to help save it, she says she loves all the churches in town and helps them with various needs.
“Denomination means nothing,” she said. “We’re a family.”
At the street corner, she grabs one of my hands, one of Abrahams’, and grasps them both in hers. “We are touching and agreeing, Lord,” she begins, and continues her prayer.
We part and, heading up Railroad Street with her stroller, she turns back to me and shouts that, if we evoke Jesus, “we are blessed and anointed with his spirit, and we don’t have to guess, because we’re on Straight Street.”