Local AME Church restored

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On Saturday afternoon, Concord Township held a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the old Spring Valley African Methodist Episcopal Church on Spring Valley Road. The township bought the property in 2014 for its historic significance with the idea to restore and move it, but then some historic reality came into the mix.

For roughly 100 years — from 1880 into the early 1980s — the Spring Valley African Methodist Episcopal Church served members of the area’s black population. But that population dwindled as church members moved elsewhere for better economic opportunities, and the church eventually closed. Then a fire destroyed parts of the building.

Concord Township Council Co-Vice President John Gillespie addresses the crowd at the ribbon-cutting ceremony. He called the restoration project "a labor of love."

Township Council Co-Vice President John Gillespie said one of the original thoughts was to physically move the building to Smithbridge Road or dismantle it and then reassemble it on Smithbridge near some other historic properties. But then they learned it was more than just an old church building.

Gillespie said he and a woman named Josephine Lomax were on the advisory for COSA, the Delaware County Office of Senior Aging when Lomax mentioned the church, saying a friend’s 98-year-old grandmother wanted to visit the church one last time. That was in 2019.

“She asked if I could help her, and I said I’d do the best I could. I told her no more than two cars — there was no fence, no parking lot. It was very rustic. Seven cars showed up with 17 people,” he said. Then it got interesting.

“One of the ladies went back to her car and brought out a shovel and some boots. I asked if I could help her and she said, ‘Yeah, I want to go back and look for the graves,’” Gillespie said.

The woman then pulled out eight death certificates showing the site was also a church cemetery. Gillespie said he photographed the certificates with his cell phone and called township Manager Amanda Serock to tell her, “It went well today, but there was one glitch…Not only do we own a church, but we also now own a cemetery. I think she dropped the phone.”

Council President Dominic Pileggi picked up the story from there. He said they brought in ground penetrating radar and found about eight anomalous readings. At that point, there was no way they were going to move the building and disturb the graves.

A photograph taken by John Gillespie showing the 17 people who went to the church that day in 2019 when Gillespie learned the church site was also a cemetery.

While no specific graves were found, a large gravestone marks the site of those anomalous readings on the east side of the church.

Restoration of the site cost $470,000 with county grants covering more than half that cost.

However, the historical significance and preservation of the site, which is important to the township, also has emotional significance to the people who once worshipped there and their descendants.

Pandora Campbell was one of the people involved in lighting the fuse to restore the church.

“It was my grandmother’s dying wish to come visit this church, her childhood church where her father was a founding member. To see it like this, it’s a miracle.

Her daughter, Kieesha Carter was also moved by the day.

A gravestone marks the area of the cemetery next to the church.

“It’s special to me because I get to see my family’s footprint. I get to see the lineage. I was christened here. The beauty of it all is for the community to now have a historical site that’s in honor of all the tribulations that we went through, but we persevere. There was an arson here, but it’s still standing thanks to the township. I just love the fact that I get to see my mom rejoice in the church where she grew up.”

For Kay Anderson, it was also a bit of a homecoming. She started coming to the church when she was a baby, 73 years ago.

“Sandra Chambers, my mother, was a cook here and a singer,” Anderson said. “This [church] is where I learned who God is, and this has stayed with me forever, and it always will be. When I think of ‘Let not your heart be troubled,’ when I think of people and how troubled they are, I always tell them that Jesus said, ‘Let not your heart be troubled.’”

Gillespie said during a brief speech before a ribbon cutting that the preservation and restoration was “a labor of love. The significance of this moment during Black History Month is not lost on us. We are thrilled to announce our collaboration with the Historical Society to further enrich our community’s understanding of African American history in Concord Township.”

The following images show the old church in a state of disrepair before restoration. Linn Architects, who worked on the restoration, provided the following images.

About Rich Schwartzman

Rich Schwartzman has been reporting on events in the greater Chadds Ford area since September 2001 when he became the founding editor of The Chadds Ford Post. In April 2009 he became managing editor of ChaddsFordLive. He is also an award-winning photographer.

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