Text by Abby Stetina
At 154 years old, the church has been an institution in Columbia. With regular attendance waning, the church now has to solve its greatest challenge: sticking around for the next 154 years.
Soulful singing from the choir at St. Paul AME rings out over the historic church on a recent Sunday. But a look around the pews reveals fewer than a dozen congregants in attendance.
The story of St. Paul AME is reflected in churches across the nation: congregations are shrinking and aging. According to the Pew Research Center, 48% of adults 65 and older attend church at least once a week, compared to 27% of 18-29 year olds.
Yet those who are regulars at St. Paul AME, a church founded in Sidney Maxwell’s blacksmith shop in 1867 with about 30 members, are fiercely loyal.
“I love — not just this [church] — but the whole AME church itself,” said J. Noel Heermance. He joined St. Paul when he married an associate pastor of the congregation, Rev. Shirley Heermance, in 1984. After moving away from Columbia, he found his spiritual home still welcoming when he returned 30 years later.
“They’ve changed it a little bit now but, several years ago, their motto was ‘God Our Father, Christ Our Redeemer, Man Our Brother,’” Heermance said. “They believe in the ‘Man Our Brother’ thing. A lot of people say it. These folks practice it.”
Listen to the full story of St. Paul AME Church.
In 1890, St. Paul AME purchased its present home for $10,000. The church is on the corner of Fifth and Park streets. The National Register of Historic Places added St. Paul AME to its list in 1980.
Note: This package is the result of a partnership between a class at the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism and CoMoHistoricPlaces.com. The journalists who created this content were Ashley Arneson, Abby Stetina, Davis Suppes and Maggie Trovato.