Though there’s mold growing on the walls, peeling paint on the ceiling and cobwebs dusting the pews, the Mount Zion Baptist Church has what some call a “special feel.”
It’s inexplicable, but it might have something to do with the beautiful stained glass windows, the rounded pews and the sumptuous oak doors. Or, it could be the history lingering in all of those physical attributes.
“There’s just a feel to it that is very special,” said Ron Luce, standing in the sanctuary and looking up to the tin ceiling, water damage causing the white paint to peel and fall on the pews below.
Luce is treasurer of the Mount Zion Baptist Church Preservation Society, formed about four years ago in hopes of preserving the Athens building the congregation used for years.
The size and activity of the church’s congregation fluctuated over the years, though many remember the popular Gospel Voices of Faith choir that it once formed. The last church activity hosted in the building is believed to have been a funeral in 2004 or 2005, said Ada Woodson Adams, secretary of the society.
The society was awarded the deed to the church, at 32 W. Carpenter St. in Athens, a little over a week ago after a years-long battle to get control of it. During those years, the building was largely abandoned and the more than 100-year-old structure deteriorated.
Now, the church has a deserted look: hymnals are stacked on a front pew; a tray to hold communion cups is on a front table, a few cups still inside; and an organ is randomly placed near a corner. Everything is disheveled, and though it seems the place has potential, it’s not a surprise that it’s been deemed uninhabitable.
In the basement, the floor has caved in in several places. What was once a kitchen no longer has a floor, and in the corner sits a piano, half-sunken into the ground beneath. In a small room off to the side are large bags of pop cans, beer bottles and other trash, left over from people who used the site as a party venue.
So, though the “feel” may be there, not much else is. At one time, the building was the social center for the African-American population in Athens, and it was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1980.
“This church is a piece of the history of America, of Athens County, of Athens, and I think it tells the story of a people, of a place, of a time,” Adams said.
“The history of the black community in Athens County is very rich, and Mount Zion Baptist Church played a key role in that history,” Adams said in explaining why it’s important to save the church. “It became important to me to save a piece of black history and a historical site because of these pieces of my personal connection.”
Adams, originally from Nelsonville, was baptized and married in the church, and her mother knew one of the people who helped establish the building for the church. The church was founded in 1872 and moved into the building in the early 1900s.
Mount Zion was one of the first racially integrated churches, said Athens Mayor Steve Patterson.
“It’s just a symbol of what the city of Athens stands for, being open and inclusive,” Patterson said. “It’s of historical relevance to the city of Athens. … It’s hugely important from a preservation standpoint.”
In 2013, a few concerned residents took notice of the empty building and formed the society, which then fought to gain ownership to preserve it.
Cinseree Johnson merged the church out of existence into a limited liability corporation in 2013 and claimed the building as an asset. It was later determined that she had no right to do so, according to records filed in Athens County Common Pleas Court by the state attorney general’s office when it sued to gain control of the building in November 2016. Attempts to contact Johnson were not successful.
The Ohio attorney general’s office transferred the building’s deed to the society at the end of last month.
Now, the society must raise the money to restore the church to its former glory — in hopes of hosting services there again one day. It’s also hoping to make the basement into a museum to showcase black history, Adams said.
“It really makes me feel jubilant now to know we are going to be able to save it, preserve it and make it viable in the community again,” Adams said. “Hopefully we can restore it to its original beauty.”