The March 23, 1923 edition of The Daily Capital News stated, “The people of Jefferson City are proud of their church organizations and their pastors because their present standing is a result of the work of the leaders in the community for almost a hundred years. Being located in the Capital City, the church people of Jefferson City feel they must be ready to properly care for those who come here from other cities, and the result is that the church buildings are properly furnished and equipped not only to care for the membership but for all visitors who are extended a most hearty welcome”.
Almost a hundred years later, the churches of Jefferson City are still welcoming visitors. Eight of these historic congregations will open their doors on September 12 for Historic City of Jefferson’s 15th annual tour of historic buildings.
You may drive by these historic places of worship every week, and yet, how much do you know about them? As I learn more about their history in preparation for the tour, I thought I would share a little with you.
The first Grace Episcopal Church in Jefferson City was built in 1842 and was located on Madison Street, facing west towards Madison House (where the Governor Hotel building is now). It served as a hospital in the 1850s for victims of the cholera epidemic and again during the Civil War for wounded soldiers. When it celebrated its 50th birthday in 1892, the newspapers recognized it as the oldest church west of the Mississippi still standing. While I can’t verify the accuracy of that statement, the building was damaged by a fire just a few months later, in January 1893.
“While services were being held in Grace (Episcopal) Church at Jefferson City the other evening, the evergreen decorations, which had not been removed since Christmas and which were quite dry, caught fire from a gas jet, and instantly the entire mass was aflame. The congregation was panic-stricken, and most of them fled from the church in terror. Several ladies fainted. A few men retained their senses, and before the fire company arrived, the flames were under control.”
The old Grace Episcopal building was replaced in 1898 by the late Gothic Revival building that currently stands at the corner of Adams and High Streets.
During Jefferson City’s earliest days, a group of both free and enslaved blacks gathered for meetings under the banner of the African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church. In the Methodist tradition, such groups were called societies, meeting whenever and wherever they could.
In 1840, the A.M.E. General Conference selected William Paul Quinn to be a missionary and plant churches west of Ohio.
Missouri was still a slave state, and Bishop Quinn stayed in Illinois, preaching across the Mississippi River at night to the enslaved blacks gathered on the Missouri side. He established St. Paul–St. Louis, the oldest A.M.E. Church west of the Mississippi in 1841.
Bishop Quinn later traveled throughout Missouri as a circuit rider, a traveling minister who moved among multiple societies of people who gathered for worship. The society in Jefferson City was formed around 1850.
In 1862, the society in Jefferson City was changed to a mission, a step towards recognition as a church. This transition was accomplished by the Rev. John Hunter when he organized 25 members in Jefferson City. Although organized, these members went without a pastor until 1863, when the Rev. Frank Carter was sent to be their first pastor.
Violet Ramsey, born enslaved, received her freedom for “motives of benevolence and humanity” in 1838. Violet would later purchase her husband Elijah’s freedom along with two of her sons. Violet is recorded as buying land at Madison and Miller streets and building a home where Quinn Chapel held services.
Violet and Elijah continued buying property, including farmland south of town that passed to their son Harrison. Elijah Jr. deeded a portion of the property, including a log cabin, at 116 East Miller to the church. He later gifted more land for a parsonage.
Historical records indicated both the Methodist and the Baptist worshiped together in the building in 1863. In 1864, the log cabin was demolished, and a wooden frame structure was erected followed by a brick structure on the corner of Madison and Miller streets in 1876.
In 1955, work on Highway 50 through Jefferson City displaced Quinn, and the congregation moved to 529 Lafayette Street. More changes to Highway 50 caused Quinn to move once again in 2013. This time, just one block north, the newest home of Quinn Chapel A.M.E. Church sits at 415 Lafayette, still in the heart of the historic black community.
Temple Beth El
Temple Beth El was constructed in 1883 and is the oldest synagogue building west of the Mississippi that is still in use, and the 14th oldest in the country.
The first documented Jewish settler in Jefferson City was Morris Obermeyer, who started a mercantile business in 1844 along with his brothers Louis, Simon and Joseph. The Obermeyers were well respected members of the community and their business prospered.
Morris passed away in 1876 and his body was taken to St. Louis for a proper burial. A short time later nine Jewish men formed the Jefferson City Hebrew Cemetery Association.
The site of the first Jewish Cemetery, Maple Grove, was located in the 1300 block of East McCarty Street in 1879. At that time they also organized a congregation, naming it “Congregation Beth El”, which means House of God, to promote the reform Jewish faith.
In 1882 Congregation Beth El used $1,800 raised by the Hebrew Ladies Sewing Society to a purchase a lot, located at 318 Monroe Street and build the synagogue. Prominent local architect, Frank B. Miller designed the Temple Beth El building.
Miller later became one of the most well respected area architects designing other noteworthy buildings including the Cole County Court House, Central Trust and the original Library.
The Historic Places of Worship Tour will take place on Sunday, September 12 from 1:00-4:30 p.m. It is a self-guided walking/driving tour featuring eight of Jefferson City’s historic congregations, including the three mentioned above.
If you are interested in attending the tour, you can purchase tickets online at www.historiccityofjefferson.org for $15 each. Tickets can also be purchased at the following local retailers: Capital Arts Gallery, Carrie’s Hallmark, Click2Sell4U, Hy-vee, J Street Vintage, Samuel’s, Schaefer House, Schulte’s, and ShopGirl.