Woman's dying wish helps bring historic Newark church a new home

By Dan Ivers | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
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on July 13, 2015

Rev. Ronald Slaughter of St. James AME Church in Newark stands outside a trio of properties on Martin Luther King Blvd. that will serve as the historic church's next home. The church bought the properties from the Newark Public Library last week.

 

NEWARK – The congregation at Saint James AME Church is preparing to leave its longtime home, and fulfilling one of their former neighbors' dying wishes in the process.

On Wednesday, the church paid $375,000 to the Newark Public Library for three lots at 591, 593 and 595 Martin Luther King Blvd., across the street from the building it has called home for the last 70 years.

It wasn't until the closing, however, that a group including the church's pastor, the Rev. Ronald Slaughter, learned that the plots had been left to the library by their late owner Renee Starks Steed, who died in 1996.

Steed, a prominent woman who ran a popular city charm school, requested that the library reciprocate by taking steps to honor her legacy, and purchase materials or provide programming on the history of black female entrepreneurs. The library did not accept the gift until 2007, in hopes of establishing a branch at the site, but the hopes were dashed due to the recession and resulting budget cuts, paving the way for it to go to Saint James.

According to Steed's wishes, half of the sale price will be provided to a foundation established by her estate and distributed to a number of charitable efforts, including $187,500 to the United Negro College Fund and an NAACP scholarship program.

The rest will go to the library, which will use much of it on paintings or other artifacts depicting African-American women, or books detailing African-American history.

Slaughter said the revelation at the closing made an already special moment for the church's 3,500 parishioners that much more valuable.

"I heard she was a phenomenal African-American woman, and you can see that when you look at the judgment that she bequeathed to the Newark Public Library," he said. 

The church is planning to buy additional parcels around the lots before demolishing the buildings and starting work on a new church that will include a new sanctuary, boardrooms, classrooms and a 200-seat amphitheater for youth.

Slaughter said the new facility would also resolve handicap accessibility problems and a number of other issues at the parish's current building, which was built in 1875.

"We're in an outdated, marvelous facility. It looks good, but it's old," he said. "We've done all that we can really do in this facility, and we spend so much money just trying to keep this facility up."

The church is planning to hold onto its current building across the street, which it purchased from the High Street Presbyterian Church for $30,000 in 1945, in order to turn it into a banquet hall.

Library Assistant Director Paul Pattwell said the sale marked the end of a nearly decade-long attempt to either turn the property into a branch, or sell it to a party that would help honor Steed's will. The library has gone from 10 branches to just 7 over the last eight years, though he said directors and trustees were nonetheless pleased to see the plots go to Saint James. 

"We're happy that these properties are in the hands of people that are going to use them to the benefit of the community," he said.

Both the library and Saint James also have plans to honor Steed's legacy. The library will put up a plaque to celebrate her contributions, while the church will name a room at its new facility after her.

Slaughter and other parishioners also said the new acquisition represents a symbolic step forward for a church still reeling from a mass shooting that killed 9 people, including a Newark native, at an AME church in Charleston.

The local parish has added new security measures since the incident last month, and has plans to install additional cameras and other equipment at the new building.

Regina Jackson, Director of Marketing and Communications for the church, said any improvements will be tempered to ensure the congregation's experience within the church remains a positive one.

"I think it was more about just a shift in what we're doing with our security. We don't want to go overboard and have the church feel like a jail cell or a prison or anything like that," she said. "You still want people to feel safe when they come to the house of the Lord."

Slaughter called the upcoming construction, which he hoped would be finished in the next five years, a historic moment for a church with deep ties throughout the city and its Central Ward.

"The church is the beacon of light in the community. After Charleston, the doors of the church are still open. (Alleged shooter) Dylann Roof cannot close the doors of any AME church," he said. "Now the doors swing wider than ever before. This ensures that our doors continue to stay open."

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