MERIDEN — It has been 75 years since 15 people met in a vacant lot on Veteran Street and began a ministry that would endure setbacks and grow to serve a community.
Mount Hebron Baptist Church relocated three times before settling at the corner of Park and Franklin streets in 1964. Rev. Willie Young has led the church community for the past 29 years and is planning to retire next year.
”We have improved the area in cooperation with the people in the area,” Young said. “It has improved greatly. We have paid off the mortgage, and renovated.”
The church celebrated 75 years this week with guest preachers, an anniversary luncheon, and a celebration today with the Archbishop LeRoy Bailey. The event is at 3 p.m.
“The significance of the 75th anniversary is how we came from a parking lot in 1943, then moved in 1957 to the Jewish Temple on Cedar Street in Meriden,” said Cynthia Preston, a church member since the late 1950s, now a deaconess. “We kept having to get a larger church because of northern migration.”
According to reports in the Meriden Record, On July 11, 1943, the Mount Hebron Baptist Gospel Mission was organized at an outdoor gathering in a lot on Veteran Street under the leadership of the Rev. James. F. Thompson. The city’s African-American population had increased during World War II, as families came north to work in war industries. The mission got its start largely from the ranks of the war workers and families who continued to live in Meriden. Today, the church has more than 400 members.
“We have a lot of members who have grown up through the generations,” said Bea Preston. “It’s a good mix of ages; we still have a strong youth group, as well.”
After the parking lot days, the small group met in rooms in the Kassabian Building on East Main Street, but quarters were later rented at 21 Veteran St. The Rev. LS. Rhodes became pastor after Thompson left for another church.
The largest growth occurred when the Rev. F.H. Hicks became pastor in 1951. The church became incorporated, Sunday school began and in June 1956, Mount Hebron bought the vacant B’Nai Abraham temple on Cedar Street for $10,000. The building included living quarters for the pastor and his family and title to pews, chairs and other furnishings. A caravan that included then-Mayor Henry Altobello and Rabbi Albert Troy participated in the first service.
A year and a half later, a fire destroyed the church on Jan. 9, 1958, leaving Hicks and his family homeless and the congregation without a church. The land was later bought by the Meriden Housing Authority for the Mills Memorial Apartments. The First Congregational Church invited Hicks to hold services in its Colony Street facility.
Between the fire settlement and the housing authority funds, Mount Hebron was able to purchase the Olive Branch Chapel on East Main Street. But within five years, it had outgrown the space. The church then negotiated a deal to buy the Calvary Baptist Church on Franklin Street.
The church’s activities also expanded. There were 11 organizations that aided in the operation of the church, including the Woman’s Missionary Society, Sunday school, and junior and senior choirs.
When Young arrived in 1989, the lower end of Franklin Street was being used as a dumping ground and crime was on the increase in the City Park neighborhood.
Young worked tirelessly with neighborhood leaders, City Hall and police to clean the area and decrease crime.
Young also implemented after-school work programs for neighborhood children, got on the board of New Opportunities for Meriden and was a leader in the annual Walk for Warmth.
“Kids had nothing to do after school,” Young said.
Outreach and northern migration brought membership to more than 400. In 2010, Young and board members outlined a vision for the church’s future — some things, such as paying off the mortgage and securing parking, have been achieved.
The church wants to do more.
”In the future, the big plan is to build a bigger church,” Young said.