Enoch: Cultural history of Allen Chapel

Published 3:00 pm Saturday, May 27, 2023

By Harry Enoch


Several years before Emancipation, a black congregation formed and began meeting in the basement of the First Methodist Church (white) located at the corner of Lexington Avenue and Wall Alley.

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In February 1866, the congregation acquired a building lot in the name of the “AME Church of Winchester.” Leaders of the movement were John Allen, George Gardner, James Austin and Ned Massie.

It became the first African American church in Winchester. The petition of Allen Chapel to join the new Colored Methodist Episcopal (CME) Church of America was accepted in 1870. The congregation met in a frame structure for many years.

In 1898 the cornerstone was laid for a new brick edifice—the present building standing near the corner of Broadway and Highland Street. A pipe organ was installed in the church in 1920; a community center and church annex were added in the 1920s; and a new brick parsonage was built in 1962.

In 1977 the Kentucky Heritage Commission designated this Gothic Revival church at 105 East Broadway as “National Register eligible.”

The Winchester church has been host to many historic events and notable persons over the years.

In 1869, Rev. William H. Miles organized the Kentucky Colored Conference, which held its second meeting in Winchester with the illustrious bishop of the Methodist-Episcopal Church, South, H. H. (Hubbard Hinde) Kavanaugh, presiding.

The Colored Methodist Episcopal Church of America was organized at a general conference in December 1870 in Jackson, Tennessee. Rev. William Miles was elected as the first bishop. At the same conference, Bishop Miles presented the Winchester church’s petition for membership, which was accepted.

Two pastors of Allen Chapel were later ordained bishops in the CME Church. In 1879, the church was ministered by C. H. (Charles Henry) Phillips. He was ordained a bishop in 1902. In 1925 Phillips published “The History of the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church in America.”

Luther Stewart was the pastor at Allen Chapel in the 1920s. Stewart was ordained as bishop in 1946. He contributed $1,000 toward building the new church parsonage.

In 1886 Allen Chapel hosted its first of several annual conferences of Kentucky CME Churches. Bishop Joseph A. Beebe presided over the conference here in 1893; Bishop Isaac Lane presided at the conferences of 1907 and 1911; Bishop Nelson C. Cleaves in 1920; Bishop Lucius H. Holsey in the late 1920s; and Bishop C. H. Phillips in 1936 and 1939.

Bishop Isaac Lane visited Winchester in 1898 to lay the cornerstone for the new church. He established Lane College in 1882 at Jackson, Tennessee. Bishop Lucius Holsey was a leader in establishing CME schools.

Bishop C. H. Phillips had a significant influence in expanding the CME Church; the Phillips School of Theology in Atlanta is named for him.

Perhaps the most famous guest at Allen Chapel was Frederick Douglass, who visited the city in 1893 and spoke at the church. Douglass was a celebrated American social reformer, abolitionist, orator, writer and statesman.

The following year, Matilda Sissieretta Jones visited the church. She was the acclaimed American opera singer known as “The Black Patti” who was among the greatest sopranos in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. She was a famous recording artist with her group, the Black Patti Troubadours.

The church’s community center was a busy place. Many of the African American lodges met there and school closing exercises were held there. Sometime in the 1930s, Richard B. Harrison entertained at the community center. He was the most famous black stage actor of the early 20th century. His father had been born into slavery in Fayette County. Harrison commanded record attendances during his 1,657 performances portraying “De Lawd” in the Pulitzer Prize winning play “Green Pastures.”

Due to an aging congregation and decreasing membership, the church closed its doors in 2013. The abandoned building was purchased by the First Baptist Church in 2015.

Note:  Many of the above names and dates were taken from a printed history of Allen Chapel.