About two years ago, Juanita Whitted had little hope for her church.
The small Bensalem structure was falling into disrepair, and was hardly suitable for hosting a congregation. She organized dinner fundraisers and other events to get some money together to save it, but it wasn’t enough.
“I have prayed and prayed and prayed and it seems like God just didn’t hear me,” Whitted said.
Last Saturday, she stood in front of the Bensalem African Methodist Episcopal Church beaming.
“Look what the Lord has done for me,” she said, the completely restored church in the background.
The building, on a one-acre property at 1200 Bridgewater Road, is nearly 200 years old. It’s one of the oldest churches in the AME faith, which now has worldwide membership of over 2.5 million.
The faith was founded by Richard Allen, a former slave who bought his freedom in the late 1700s. He was a preacher at St. George’s Methodist Church in Philadelphia, where black and white worship was segregated.
Allen led a movement of African-Americans away from the church, and started what became the African-American Methodist Episcopal Church in 1794.
The Bensalem congregation was founded in 1818, and the wood-frame church was built 14 years later.
By the time it needed to be repaired, there were only eight active members of the congregation.
Encouraged by a friend, Whitted approached Bensalem Mayor Joe DiGirolamo and Township Council for help.
“The mayor greets me with tears running down my eyes,” she said of their first meeting. “It’s starting to crumble and I don’t know how much longer we can hold service there.”
DiGirolamo recognized the historical significance of the church and did not hesitate to help. Along with Councilman Ed Kisselback, chairman of the Bensalem Heritage Foundation, they enlisted volunteers, had fundraisers and got members of the community involved.
“We are blessed in Bensalem to have the greatest community,” DiGirolamo said at a dedication ceremony held at the church. “There was so many volunteers that made this happen.”
Kisselback took the podium and thanked Al Chadwick, who owns a contracting business in Bensalem and helped with many of the repairs. He was brought on to help with the HVAC system, and ended up renovating other major elements of the building.
“He insisted on doing it, over and over again,” Kisselback said.
The community room was expanded, ADA-accessible rest rooms were put in, along with a kitchen. In addition to the new repairs, the church still contains the original pulpit, handcrafted by Bishop Allen.
Kisselback also recognized Ron Davis, director of diversity and community development at Parx Casino, who assisted in raising funds. He thanked the volunteer students from Bensalem High School, the community and clergy members who gave up their time to save the historic building.
Because of the collective effort, Whitted doesn’t have to worry about her church falling down, and Bensalem gets to preserve a piece of local history.
“This, to me, was a labor of love,” Kisselback said. “This will give us the opportunity to tell our children and grandchildren about the history that is here.”