JEFFERSON — For the first time in decades, Union Missionary Baptist Church in Jefferson, a historical, predominately black church built in 1883, had a choir belting out praise songs in front of a full congregation as the Collins Academy hosted a grand opening service recently after spending the past several years working on the restoration.
Richard Collins, owner of the Collins Academy, took on the restoration project, which cost about $1 million, with plans to turn the church into a community center for activities and a museum for students to learn local Jefferson history.
Various donors also helped fund the restoration alongside the Collins Academy, a Jefferson organization that provides community-focused education and professional development opportunities.
The church played a vital role during Reconstruction when Freedmen and Radical Republican organizations used the church as a meeting place to make important decisions that faced their community, including the right to vote, Jim Crow, integration and the fight for civil rights.
“Everything we do is related to education,” Collins Academy Director Gary Endsley said to a full house at the church’s invitation-only opening on Nov. 23. “We are teaching children and adults about history, architecture, historic preservation, conservation, interior design, botany and art, all through the Collins Academy, the House of the Seasons, the Port Jefferson History and Nature Center and now the Union Missionary Baptist Church.”
The church, which officially received its state historical landmark in 2011, has a baptistry behind the church in a building that the Collins Academy believes was built in the 1950s. The baptistry area was preserved during the renovation, and the building now contains old photos of former church members and leaders.
“I was saved in this church and baptized here as a little girl,” Julia Jackson of Houston said during the service. “I used to go to church here all the way until I graduated high school and left home. It’s so beautiful. I couldn’t sit during the service tonight; I’m just so excited. This is what my sister wanted. I wish she could have been here to see it.”
Jackson’s sister, Bonnie Jackson Floyd, originally petitioned Collins to save and restore the church.
Collins said he was pleased with the turnout and reaction to the church’s restoration.
“The turnout was great,” he said. “Everybody has loved it. The Wiley College choir that performed tonight was spectacular, and we are looking forward to working with Wiley College in the future.”
Collins said he hopes the church once again establishes its level of importance to the community.
“This building will be used for religious services, special events, receptions, the upcoming Delaney sisters play ..., student education and archaeological work,” he said.
Collins said the time, money, sweat and hard work during the restoration over the past several years were well worth it to bring back an important aspect of Marion County’s history.
“From start to finish, this took about five or six years,” he said. “Construction took 18 months. We couldn’t find local contractors to work on it. The pews are original; pretty much everything in here is original.”
For information about the Collins Academy and the Union Missionary Baptist Church, go to www.collinsacademy.com .