Oldest African American church in Madison celebrates 121 years

St. Paul Church 1

The Rev. Gregory Armstrong, pastor at St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church, has been leading the church since 2019. In August, the church celebrated its 121st anniversary.

Myzell Alexander moved from Arkansas to Madison after graduating from high school in 1961. The first thing that he was determined to do was find a church.

“When I left home, my mother always told me ‘When you leave, get involved with the church,’” he recalled. “So I started going to St. Paul.”

Now, at 81 years old, Alexander has been a member of St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church’s congregation for over 60 years. During those six decades, Alexander has attended countless Sunday services, served as a officer of the church and raised four children. At every stage of his adult life, St. Paul was there. 

“When I was having problems, I could always go to the church and listen to a prayer. Listen to a sermon,” he said. “There is always something said that gives you the strength to keep going.” 

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121 years of service

Alexander is just one of many Black Madison residents who have deep ties to St. Paul, the oldest African American church in Madison. It celebrated its 121st anniversary in August. Established in 1902 by John Tuner, William M. Miller, Moses Jefferson, William Hughes and Henry Jameson, the church was founded on the mission of offering spiritual, charitable and educational resources for Madison’s small but growing Black community. 

St. Paul has been relocated multiple times, endured two fires (one in 1931 and the other in 1941) and had several pastors lead the church. St. Paul’s first established location was at 631 East Dayton Street, which during the early 1900s, was all marshland. Due to the terrain, the church’s visitors and congregation had to walk across wooden boardwalks to enter the building. In 1965, St. Paul was relocated to a building on Mifflin Street and today the church is located on Madison’s East Side, at 4525 Diamond Drive.

Despite these frequent changes, the love that St. Paul’s congregation has held for their church has never wavered. 

“There’s always been a determination and a strong will of those who wanted the church to continue to exist and continue to do the work that it was intended to do,” said the Rev. Gregory Armstrong, pastor of St. Paul since 2019.

St. Paul Church 2

The Rev. Gregory Armstrong, who serves as the church’s current pastor, holds deep ties to St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church. His own father, Hubert Armstrong, served as the church’s pastor from 1973 to 1984.

Teaching Black History 

The church’s teachings have often centered the importance of Black history. Armstrong is originally from Milwaukee but his father, Hubert Armstrong, served as the church’s pastor from 1973 to 1984. Armstrong was a young adult when his father preached at the church, and he remembers the importance that Black history held in St. Paul’s work and teachings.

This church has been fundamentally known for being a good church to not only understand religious history, but Black history as well,” Armstrong said. ”I can remember when we had services there both day and night, and people from the university would drop in to listen.”

Alexander’s four children grew up in the church and attended Sunday school sessions, where they had the chance to learn about parts of Black history that weren’t addressed in their school’s curriculum. Even today, if one walks into one of the church’s Sunday School rooms, they’ll find walls lined with pictures of prominent Black historical figures such as Rosa Parks and Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall. 

St. Paul Church 3

The Rev. Gregory Armstrong, pastor at St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church, shows some of the classrooms in the basement of the church. Black history has often been prioritized in the church’s Sunday school teachings.

“When I came here and they didn’t teach Black history in school, St. Paul was one of the places that continued to teach Black history,” Alexander said. “Otherwise, they wouldn’t know about all the things that African Americans have contributed to this country. It’s always Black History Month for us.’

Supporting the Community

From the start, community outreach and youth empowerment have been central focuses for the church’s leadership. Over the years, St. Paul has provided scholarships for students and run a ministry program for the incarcerated. More recently, the church has partnered with Kennedy Elementary School, where congregation members serve as mentors for local students. 

“I think it’s been a place where people feel comfortable in coming for spiritual help and for other support,” said James Scott, who joined the church’s congregation in the early 1990s. “Some people come for looking for employment, others come looking for support for their family.”

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The church is still working to regain members who left during the COVID-19 pandemic and has 55 members in their congregation right now, Armstrong said. 

“There’s still a lot of people who have not returned and probably never will,” Armstrong said. “But the fact of the matter is that we got a nice group of people that continue to have a passion about the church and continue to care.”

One of those people who continues to have passion for the church is Alexander. For him, remaining so involved in the church after all these years isn’t an obligation — but a privilege. 

“We’ve had some good times at St. Paul,” Alexander said. “I’m just thanking God that I’m still here to see it still running and that I’m still able to get up and enjoy the service every Sunday morning.”

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