Patchogue’s first black church celebrates 100 years of services

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It’s easy to miss the tiny Grace A.M.E. Zion Church when driving along Grant Place in Patchogue.

But the village’s first black church has been making a meaningful impact in the community for a century and is focused on building for the future, members say. The house of worship turned 100 last month with members celebrating what it means to them and to the village.

“I hadn’t been to several churches that made me feel like I wanted to go to church until I came here,” said longtime member Evonne Harrell, 62, of Bellport, noting the Patchogue church felt comfortable and provided opportunities. “I’ve learned so much from this church and I live for this church. It’s given me so much.”

The Rev. Caleb Edwards founded the Zion church in 1919, but only stayed a short while before being succeeded by the Rev. Harry Wilson of Virginia, church members said. The following year the church purchased a small vacant lot on a residential street at the corner of Grant Place and Cleveland Street and moved the shake-shingle building to the site where it has remained since.

The church initially struggled with paying for essential furnishings, but the growing pains were offset by donations from the business community and fellow churches pitching in to purchase pews and pulpit furniture, members said.

Zion Church has never been a large congregation, but it’s always been active, members say.

At its peak in the 1960s, the church had a few dozen members and three choirs — the senior, youth and young adult groups, with the latter traveling across Long Island to participate in concerts and competitions, church members said.

Today, the church has about 22 members .

Pastor Jessie Fields, of Riverhead, has been at the church’s helm for five years and said the church has worked hard to make an impact in Patchogue and surrounding communities.

“When I was told this is where I would be coming, I went into a shock in a good way,” Fields said, noting she had little experience as a minister and lacked the doctoral degree most pastors had.

“My expectation is to see that we do grow,” she said. “I pray that I would be given the knowledge and wisdom and understanding to know how to draw more young people in the church.”

Ella B. McLean, 98, of East Patchogue, is part of that effort. While she joined the church 70 years ago and is its longest active member, the thing that keeps her coming back is the community outreach. Over the years, that’s included co-sponsoring prayer breakfast programs with churches in Bellport, Gordon Heights and Riverhead.

“My vision is to have more local youths join, then go off to college and return to Patchogue and be a productive member of society,” said McLean, who can be found playing the organ for Sunday services.

Brookhaven Town Supervisor Edward P. Romaine noted the church’s determination and success, presenting a proclamation for the 100th anniversary celebration in May.

“It’s an endearing institution that is part of Patchogue’s history,” Romaine said.  “They’ve showed determination and reaching 100 years is a demonstration of that.

“Nothing is more powerful than faith,” he said.

Grace A.M.E. Zion Church

Founded: 1919

Current membership: 22 people

Location: Corner of Grant Place and Cleveland Street in Patchogue

Pastor: The Rev. Jessie Fields.