Carol Radford and Joyce Brooks worked together planting flowers in the bed around the Mount Calvary Baptist Church in Robertsville on Good Friday afternoon.
As the ladies laughed and talked about the church’s anniversary celebration being held this Sunday, April 23, they were reminded of how far the church has come since it was founded in 1897 as an African-American only church.
“Back then the races were segregrated,” said Brooks, a fifth-generation member of Mount Calvary who lives in Villa Ridge.
Radford, a historian from St. Clair who joined the church four years ago, said she discovered Mount Calvary while working on a book about the 150 or so historic churches around Franklin County. She felt so welcome and accepted after just one visit that she kept coming back.
Today Radford and her husband, Verlan, who serves as the church custodian, are as integral as any of Mount Calvary’s 30 to 40 active members.
Brooks, who grew up attending Mount Calvary and came back to her childhood church just a year and a half ago, said she’s proud to see her church today — integrated, multicultural and stronger for it.
“It’s come as you are, come who you are,” said Brooks.
Of course, membership is lower today than it was back when Brooks was a child. In the ’50s and ’60s, there were as many as 80 to 100 active members. It may get up there again someday, she said.
A couple of young families have joined Mount Calvary recently, and that is what it takes, said Brooks, whose mother, Mamie Baker, age 90, is the oldest living member of the church today.
Flipping through the pages of old photo albums stored in the church basement, Brooks pointed out her relatives and smiled remembering former pastors like the Rev. Abraham Byrd, who served Mount Calvary for 17 years.
“Everybody loved him,” said Brooks. “He was small in stature, but very jovial, very spiritual, and he led the community, not just the church members, but the community — the drug heads, the alcoholics . . .
“He ministered to the whole community, not just church members, but people who didn’t go to church and didn’t care to,” said Brooks.
Began in Log Cabin
Many of the exact details on the history of Mount Calvary have been lost, after a fire destroyed the church in 1928, said Radford. The details that are known have been handed down through oral history.
Mount Calvary was founded in 1897 when three trustees, C.M. Cooper, J.C. Sweezer and Winston Ford, were elected to purchase 7 acres from Lorenzo Evans along what was then known as the Robertsville-to-Luebbering Road. Today it’s known as Highway N.
The first pastor was the Rev. Alexander Lias, and church services were held in an old log cabin that was on the property, said Radford.
The cabin was located on the steepest part of the property, so the following year, members built a new church on a more level location under the leadership of the Rev. Joseph Morris, said Radford.
Between 1898 and 1921, there were 11 ministers who served as pastors at Mount Calvary.
After a fire destroyed the church in 1928, members held services under a simple brush arbor they built on the property.
In those days, the church was served by a traveling pastor who visited once a month, and Mount Calvary’s “turn” came on the second Sunday.
“To honor that, we do Communion on the second Sunday because that was the traditional day that the congregation met,” said Radford.
The church was rebuilt and served members well for around four decades. But by the 1950s, membership had grown large enough that the church was too small.
It also was an old-style building, with a stove in the corner for heat and no running water, said Brooks.
The small white wood church was big enough for maybe five pews on each side and a pulpit.
“There was no baptismal pool. I was baptized in the Meramec River. It was segregated then,” said Brooks.
Current Church Was Dedicated in 1972
Members broke ground for the new church June 6, 1964, under the leadership of the Rev. Byrd.
“He was instrumental in getting the congregation to rebuild. His leadership led to the new church,” said Brooks.
That is the same church members use today. It was dedicated June 11, 1972.
The sanctuary includes nine pews on each side with room for the pulpit, choir box and baptismal pool at the front with a mural of the hillside along the Jordan River that was painted by a former church member.
There also is a baby grand piano that was donated to the church several years ago.
In the back of church, a handicap-accessible bathroom has been added.
There also is a full basement which includes a kitchen, dining area, more bathrooms, an office, a Sunday school classroom and a library.
Members work hard to keep the church in good repair, said Brooks, noting minor renovations have been done over the years.
“It has been well taken care of,” Brooks remarked. “Even when I was younger and when my kids were young, there were always people here taking care of the church. It has been well preserved.”
The church has had as many as 250 people inside (standing room only) for some funerals and weddings.
There have been several long-serving pastors at Mount Calvary. The Rev. Chauncey Clay served for more than three years, from 1974 to 1977 or ’78.
The Rev. Clarence Dowell served for 15 1/2 years, and the Rev. Larry Davis, who arrived in 1992, was pastor for 11 years.
After he left in 2003, Mount Calvary relied on interim pastors from churches as far away as Kirkwood and St. Louis for about five years.
Current pastor, the Rev. Frederick Evans, arrived in 2009.
In recent years, Mount Calvary has been trying to do more community outreach, said Radford.
Last fall members held a school supplies giveaway, and they participated in the Route 66 Yard Sale held over Labor Day.
They have hosted concerts at the church and performed Christmas and Easter cantatas.
Around the bend in the road at Mount Calvary is the church cemetery, where the loved ones of longtime members have been buried.
Around 1999, the church added stones that had been part of the Shores Cemetery near Union, where members and preachers, like the Rev. Morris, had been laid to rest.
Brooks worked with Chauncey Clay, Clyde Generally, the Rev. Lonzie Cole to bring the stones to Mount Calvary along with a bucket of dirt from the cemetery.
The stones were placed near where the original log cabin church was located, said Radford.
‘You’re Not Going to Fall Asleep’
Having grown up attending a Presbyterian church in Illinois, Radford said Mount Calvary is a long way from the type of services she was used to from her childhood.
“In a church like this, you are not going to fall asleep,” said Radford.
“We worship, loudly,” Brooks added, with a smile.
“We tease the pastor from down here in the pews,” said Radford.
“We sing, we talk back, we praise,” said Brooks.
“Everything is peppered with a lot of good, hardy ‘Amens’ and ‘Hallelujahs,’ so it’s lively,” said Radford.
That’s part of what she loves about Mount Calvary. The other part is the friendly, welcoming nature of the members.
“The first Sunday I came here . . . within 10 minutes, I felt completely at home,” said Radford.
“The people here are cordial, friendly, and don’t mention eating,” Brooks joked. “We eat here all of the time! We must spend our entire treasure on food!”
“We are probably the eatingest church in the area,” Radford agreed, with a laugh.
All Welcome to the Anniversary
Mount Calvary will celbrate its 120th anniversary this Sunday, April 23.
Sunday school will be at 9:30 a.m., as usual, followed by the normal service at 10 a.m.
At 3 p.m., there will be a special anniversary service with a visiting pastor, the Rev. Leonard White, from Ballwin Baptist Church.
The celebration is open to the public.
For Brooks, thinking back on Mount Calvary surviving 120 years, going from an African-American only church to one that is integrated, one word comes to mind:
“It is wonderful to me and exciting when I can say this is a multicultural church here now, because I can remember when it was segregated,” she said. “Anniversaries mean a lot here.”
If You Go . . .
Mount Calvary Baptist Church is located at 4390 Highway N in Robertsville.
Visitors are always welcome.