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Built to last, by a devoted congregation

Mount Zion AME marks 100 years, in a church built by members.

By DAN DEWITT
Published April 13, 2007


BROOKSVILLE - The church Vera Chester attended as a child "looked like one of those old-time barns," she said.

"It had three windows, one on each side and one behind the pulpit," said Chester, 81. "And, yes, it was sure enough cold, because you could look down through the cracks in the floor to the ground."

This church, Mount Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church on WPA Road east of Brooksville, is celebrating its 100th anniversary this week. One reason it has continued to thrive is the way members took on the problem of their antiquated chapel: They built a new one with their own hands. "It meant a lot to the community because they built it from the ground up and they built it with their own labor," said Hilda Willis, 82, a lifelong member of Mount Zion.

Said Lucille Byam, 65, reading from a history of the church: Members "Rochelle Gonzales and Eddie Willis, who had no previous building experience, committed to do something to keep the congregation from sitting in the cold of a deteriorating church building."

The congregation still meets in this concrete-block sanctuary built in 1959 and is celebrating its anniversary there with services at 7 p.m. every day this week and at 11 a.m. on Sunday, followed by lunch on the church grounds, said its pastor, the Rev. Willie Branch Jr.

The services are free and open to the public, which makes sense because the church is not only a place of worship but the centerpiece of a community - Mondon Hill, one of several small, rural African-American settlements established in Hernando in the late 1800s.

Many of the 52 church members still live nearby, Branch said, although Branch, for example, is from Tampa and Byam lives in Spring Hill.

"Everybody is welcome and embraced," Byam said. "And what I'm not used to, because I'm originally from New York, is that everyone knows everyone else. I liked that."

Close congregation

In the years after its founding, many church members tended their own small farms, Chester said. Typically, they also worked for one of two main employers in the area - the McDonald Mine north of Mondon Hill Road, or a large farm owned by the Bystre family - both of which paid $1 per day before World War II, Gonzales, who has since died, said in a 1999 interview.

"Everybody seems to have been related and we got along fine," Chester said. "What one didn't have another had, and they always shared."

The church was founded by the Rev. Johnnie Williams, who was part of a tradition of missionary ministers in the AME church, said Canter Brown Jr., who wrote a book with co-author Larry E. Rivers about the AME church in Florida, Laborers in the Vineyard of the Lord.

The denomination was born out of one of the first civil rights protests in the U.S. - a 1787 walkout at a Philadelphia church that forbade black members from kneeling at a prayer rail, he said.

In the decades after the Civil War, Brown said, the church took on the mission of giving former slaves one of the freedoms they had been denied: creating their own, independent congregations.

Built by members

The history of the church in Brooksville is typical in many other ways, Brown said.

It started meeting in residents' homes. The first sanctuary, built in 1912, was the only commonly owned building in the community. So was the second, completed in 1927, which for several decades served as Mondon Hill's school.

And, like rural AME churches throughout the South, all the church's buildings were constructed by members.

"There was almost no real assistance from the church hierarchy because the churches themselves didn't have many resources," Brown said. "The congregation had to create whatever was going to be created."

That certainly is how Hilda Willis remembers it.

"They didn't have any finances (from the central church). They didn't have much of anything. But they did have manual, community labor."

Dan DeWitt can be reached at dewitt@sptimes.com or (352)754-6116.

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If you go

Mount Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church is at 8160 WPA Road, Brooksville.