By RANDY GRIFFITH
Companies recruiting ethnic groups to work in Johnstown believed a church could help the new arrivals bond together and adapt to the new environment.
Former slaves recruited to work for William Rosensteel were permitted to hold church services in the Woodvale tannery’s attic.
That marked the beginning of the Cambria African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, Johnstown’s first black church. Cambria Steel later sold the church property for $1 to build its first structure.
With the next wave of black workers from the South during World War I, Cambria Steel allowed newly formed Shiloh Baptist Church and AME Bethel Church to share a company-owned building formerly used as a church for white workers. Early relationships between Johnstown companies and black churches are outlined in the 1997 book, “African Americans in Pennsylvania, Shifting Historical Perspectives.”
In addition to providing a spiritual center for the African-American community, Johnstown’s churches came to be social and community information hubs as well, said the Rev. Richard Williams of Shiloh Baptist Church.
“Church was a house of worship, a house of teaching and a house of safety,” Williams said.
“It was a safe haven, a place to find out the latest news: Whose family was expecting, which family has a newborn. Churches bury the dead and lift up the families.”
Although representing several different denominations, Johnstown’s black churches have always worked together to serve the larger community.
In the past, there were ushers’ unions, choir unions and other interdenominational groups of black church leaders.
Emma Jane Parker, 86, was part of the ushers’ union, representing Shiloh Baptist. She remembers all the ushers getting together for special services.
“We had white uniforms, white gloves and a badge,” Parker said at The Atrium Community personal care home, 216 Main St., Johns-town.
“We’d all get in a line, and when they’d call us, we’d go up to the front,” she said.
“It was really nice. We served lunches. I would cook, that one would cook, and the next one would cook, and we’d take big pans of stuff up to the church. When the preacher got done preaching, we’d go out to the dining room and serve lunch.”
Often, the morning church service would extend into the afternoon fellowship event, leading to a Sunday evening service, said Mary Boden of Hornerstown.
“We spent long hours in the church,” Boden said.
“No one was going home. It was an all-day affair.”
Boden is a lifelong member of Pilgrim Church of God in Christ, 108 Poplar St. in the Hornerstown section of Johns-town. She remembers when the church was located in Cambria City and its parsonage doubled as a home for the needy.
“The church owned property that it used as a mission in Cambria City,” Boden said. “We took in people.”
The boarders were usually older women with no families in the area, although she recalls one couple staying in the mission.
A combined church picnic was held every summer by all of the black churches, 82-year-old Charlene Wilson of Prospect recalled. She is a member of Pleasant Hill Baptist Church, 205 Peelor St. in the Prospect section of Johnstown.
“Churches really used to band together,” Wilson said.
“If we had a program, they all came.”
Wilson remembers making 18 cakes for some missionary society events.
Her son, Jeffrey Wilson of Prospect, is a deacon at Pleasant Hill.
Although attendance has dropped, Jeffrey Wilson said today’s black churches strive to remain community centers.
“The African-American church is still central when it comes to finding out information,” Jeffrey Wilson said.
“Whether it’s information about jobs, or activities that are occurring, or families or even about national events.”
Church programs promote voter registration, and encourage civic responsibility.
Pleasant Hill’s youth fellowship has long been a focal point for black teens.
“I think it is still central with the involvement it does have in the community with young people,” Jeffrey Wilson said, “trying to inspire them to be better and do great things.”
Places of worship
The following are houses of worship in the Greater Johnstown area:
Praise Center Full Gospel Church, 200 Cooper Ave.
Works of Deliverance Fellowship, 550 Park Ave.
Undenominational House of God, 213 Hickory St.
Trinity Asbury United Methodist Church, 628 Somerset St.
Stevens Memorial Holy Church, 314 William Penn Ave.
St. James Missionary Baptist Church, 400 Pine St.
Shiloh Baptist Church, 639 Menoher Blvd.
Pleasant Hill Baptist Church, 205 Peelor St.
Pilgrim Church of God in Christ, 108 Poplar St.
Mount Sinai Baptist Church, 111 Cambria St., East Conemaugh.
Jefferson Memorial First Church, 325 William Penn Ave.
Heavenly Sent Ministries, 429 Second St., East Conemaugh.
First Cambria African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, 409 Haynes St.
Christ-Centered Community Mission, 227 Market St.
Abundant Life Ministry, 1067 Menoher Blvd.
By RANDY GRIFFITH