With its doors shut, new owner sought for Court Street UMC

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By John Barnhart

    A piece of Bedford history is for sale.


    Court Street United Methodist Church, with a dwindling congregation, closed after a final worship service on Nov. 19, 2011. There were only 10 members left. Now, the building sits empty, except for visits by Danny Thompson. Thompson, now 58, grew up in the church and has the key. He acts as the agent for the congregation.
    “It’s hard, it’s hard,” he said. “Every time I come in here, I get choked up.”
    The congregation was first established in 1887 as Mt. Zion Methodist Episcopal Church with the Rev. Robert E. Warner as pastor. It was a black congregation and the people who founded it were former slaves. Thompson said it was established as a black church because of segregation.
    The congregation acquired the land for the current building on Court Street, right across from the courthouse in 1901. Thompson, pointing to a copy of the deed recorded on June 3, 1901, notes that the land was considered a valuable lot.
    The building cost $4,000 to build   and     the    cornerstone,visible next to the church’s front entrance, proclaims it Court Street M. E. Church with the year 1907 marking the year of completion. The $4,000 cost was a lot of money 100 years ago, but the congregation managed to pay off the mortgage by 1918.
    The church also had a parsonage next door.
    “It’s gone now,” Thompson said.
    There is a vacant lot, part of the church’s property next to the church. The outline of the former parsonage, marked by the stones of its foundation, is still visible.
    Thompson has the congregation’s ledgers and he is amazed at what preachers were paid. He said they got between $8 and $15 per service 100 years ago.
    The church’s ledgers are meticulous, as are the minutes. Minutes from the 1960s are written in a neat, highly legible hand.
    Thompson remembers the church when it was thriving.
    “Oh, this church was vibrant when I was a little kid,” he said.
    There was a choir, there were children in Sunday School and the church had an old piano.
    “Our piano player was Miss Ruby Payne,” he said. “She was good.”
    The piano is gone, but an organ the church purchased in the early ‘60s is there and Thompson said the church hopes to sell it. A ledger entry from Jan. 4, 1961, shows that the church payed $1,290 for it.
    The church originally depended on two coal-fired stoves to heat the building. At one point he was one of the men who were responsible for getting fires going in them so the church would be warm when others arrived. One was in the Sunday school room and the other was in the basement, with heat coming into the sanctuary through grates in the floor.
    Thompson had other duties later. He is a certified Methodist lay minister and conducted services in the pastor’s absence.
    “That’s where I belonged,” he said, nodding at the pulpit. Thompson was sitting in one of the church’s pews with nice padded seats. He said the church purchased them in 1986.
    “We had those old wooden ones before, “ he said, describing what preceded the pews.
    Thompson hopes the building will be purchased by somebody who will renovate it for a new use.
    “This is a nice, nice old building,” he said. “I’d hate to see this building destroyed. There is too much history here.”
    He points to the solid wood of the floors and the wide wooden moldings.
    “You cannot find it anywhere,” he said.
    The back of the sanctuary has wall sections that roll up. That was to allow the Sunday School room to be joined to the sanctuary to accommodate an overflow crowd. Thompson said that it also has a cathedral ceiling, now obscured by a lowered ceiling that the congregation installed in later years.
    “This is a solid building here,” he said. “I don’t want it to be torn down, no, no, no! This building can be preserved.”
    Thompson is now a member of Main Street United Methodist Church.
    “I feel right comfortable there,” he commented. “I’m comfortable with Main Street.”
    Thompson is active there in a number of capacities and volunteers with Bedford Christian Ministries.