Celebrating its 150th anniversary this weekend, South Bend’s Olivet African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church congregation aims to recognize its longevity and deep heritage by gaining inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places, the nation’s official list of historic places deemed worthy of preservation.
“This is a big deal,” says Todd Zeiger, director of Indiana Landmarks’ Northern Regional Office. “National Register listing brings well-deserved official recognition to the generations of Olivet AME congregants who have impacted Black history in South Bend, and who have tirelessly cared for their historic site.”
The National Register nomination documents the congregation’s cultural impact and the architectural significance of the building it has occupied for more than 50 years.
Formed in 1870, Olivet AME served as the first, and for many years the only, African American congregation in St. Joseph County. Its founders included members of the Powell family, which established the Huggart Settlement—the first community of free blacks in St. Joseph County—in the 1850s.
The church’s congregation has long played a leading role in the civil rights movement in South Bend, welcoming Black evangelist and abolitionist Sojourner Truth and hosting early meetings of the local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Attorney Charles Wills, a member of the congregation, led the fight against the Ku Klux Klan when the group tried to stop construction of First AME Zion Church. Church members championed the desegregation of South Bend’s Public Natatorium in the 1950s, hosted workshops and hearings on fair housing, and in 1964 joined a city-wide rally on civil rights.
“These events, plus scores of others, signal the fact that both our history and current events make Olivet African Methodist Episcopal Church what it is to South Bend,” says life-long church member Alma Powell. “Historically, we are particularly proud to highlight that Black residents organized a church only five short years after the city itself was incorporated. Olivet’s past and present membership and programs continue to thrive and serve as a cornerstone for innovative programming across the community.”
The congregation occupied a building on West Monroe Street before moving to its present location on Notre Dame Avenue in 1969 when the City proposed taking that building as part of an urban renewal project. Designed by Chicago architect Frank G. Dillard, the 1923 Gothic and Craftsman-inspired church had been vacated when its Methodist congregation merged with another.
Kurt Garner of KW Garner Consulting donated his services to develop the National Register nomination, drawing from research and documentation prepared by students from the Notre Dame School of Architecture’s historic preservation program.
The nomination builds on other efforts to preserve the historic church. The congregation installed a new roof on the building last year, aided by grants from Indiana Landmarks’ African American Landmarks Committee and the Central Indiana Community Foundation’s Cox Funds for African American Heritage.
Learn more about the church and its work at OlivetAMEChurch.com.
Todd Zeiger, Director, Indiana Landmarks Northern Regional Office, 574-286-5765, email@example.com.
Alma Powell, 574-229-7714, firstname.lastname@example.org
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