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Two generations before 97-year-old Virginia Nicholson was born, a group of worshippers formed what would be the first African-American church in Iowa.

Nicholson, of Davenport, grew up in the church and also served for three decades as president of its missionary society. Family members, including her daughter, Vodell Smith, were part of the church's social structure, singing in the children's choir and attending Halloween parties in the basement.

In addition, Nicholson would invite children to the church after school, as a safe place to stay before their parents were home from work.

That safe haven — Bethel AME Church of Davenport — is celebrating its 150th anniversary the next few months. It kicked off the historic year on the weekend of March 12-13 with a program centered on faith and church history as well as a gala fundraiser.

According to the Rev. Gregory Armstrong, the church's pastor, the $250,000 fund drive is to help renovate the building at 323 W. 11th St., including paint and repairs. It was added in 1989 to the National Register of Historic Places. 

Eighty-one years before that, in 1908, the Rev. Thomas Stovall inspired his congregation to finish what is now the church, located just off Harrison Street.

"We rallied young and old alike to carry bricks, mix mortar, drive nails and do whatever they could to finish this church," Stovall of his flock as they finished construction of what then was called the AME Church of Davenport.

An account, "The Early History of Bethel AME Church," by Craig R. Klein, showed it was founded in November 1865 and was incorporated on Jan. 1, 1866, as the African Methodist Episcopal Church of Davenport. Four men signed the incorporation papers that were filed two days later at the Scott County Recorder's office.

At the time, the church was a small frame structure at 4th and Scott streets. By 1875, the congregation had grown and church officials purchased property at the southeast corner of 11th and Ripley streets for $1,800.

Services were held for several years in the basement until the church was finished under the guidance of Stovall, who served as pastor from 1903-1912. At that time, the congregation voted to rename it Bethel AME Church.

The AME stands for African Methodist Episcopal, according to Armstrong, pastor of the church since November.

"African," Armstrong said, means the founding families were from Africa. "Methodist" means the church follows church leaders such as John Wesley. "Episcopal" means the way the church is governed, with a bishop and church council.

Iowa is in the fourth district of the AME Church which includes Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois and Michigan. Its bishop is John Richard Bryant, Chicago.

Armstrong, from Madison, Wis., heads up a congregation that includes long-time church members and their families. Annie Marie Nicholson Lucas, Davenport, is the daughter of a Baptist minister but married 62 years ago at Bethel AME.

Her husband was in the Air Force and Lucas became active in the church, managing events like the annual Women's Day. Some fundraisers, she said, would raise more than $2,000 for the historic church.

Bonnie Ballard, Milan, chairs the church's 150th anniversary committee. Ballard, who is retired from the Rock Island Arsenal, said tickets were $50 to the fundraising gala in March at the Radisson Quad-City Plaza, Davenport.

A planning committee meets weekly at the church, and the aim is to make the building stands out as a place of pride in the neighborhood.

The basement is small, but it now houses a food pantry. Other activities include a  twice-weekly computer class and social outreach efforts. Ideally, enough money will be raised to construct a life center building on the church property, Ballard said.

Janice Bryson, co-chair of the anniversary committee, said organizers also would like to purchase a van for senior members of the church.

Among those longtime members is former deaconess Flora Bland, 87, of Davenport, one of five generations to be part of the church. Baptized and married at Bethel AME, Bland remembered when she would clean the church to keep it neat and tidy.

Bettendorf resident Jethro Cribbs, 85, married his wife, Marilyn, 68 years ago at Bethel AME.

Alberta Crump, 87, worked for the city of Davenport for 32 years, reading meters. She was born across the street from Bethel AME and raised in the church.

Crump has held almost every church office possible, she said, and sang in the choir and other activities. She recalls raising money for the church as a child, and that her mother made her give some of what she raised to other AME churches in the region.

According to Ballard, church officials would like to renovate the building to be more handicapped-accessible while maintaining its status on the National Register. For this they are searching for a knowledgeable architect.

In addition, Bryson said there is a need for ambassadors to help in the fund-raising effort as well as donors.

Armstrong, the pastor, classifies his congregation as hard-working people who are very committed to the church. "People who come here are great people," he said.

The pastor, son of an AME minister and public school teacher, noted the courage and determination of the Bethel church family over the years, first raising money for a building downtown, right after the Civil War, and then building the current place of worship in the early 1900s.

"The same spirit in the beginning is replicated later," he said. "There is still work to do."

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