Created By: The History Center in Tompkins County
Ithaca’s first known group of African American worshippers met informally in 1825. In 1833, a separate contingent formed the African Methodist Church, which met in the house of a Rev. Johnson, their first pastor. The congregation of the present St. James A.M.E. Zion Church began construction on a meeting house in 1836.
In 1857, an offshoot from the Methodist church was organized and became known as the Wesleyan Methodist Church (colored). That church was located on North Albany Street.
In 1903, after several conferences and negotiations, the church took the name Calvary Baptist Church and was under the leadership of Rev. Lomax. In 1917, under the direction of Rev. W.H. White, the present church was constructed, a one-story Spanish Colonial Revival-style building on a raised stone basement. The main entry was marked by a two-story tower in the southwest corner of the structure. A stained glass window of Jesus the Good Shepherd, dedicated to the memory of Anna Wallace Wilson, Richard W. Wallace, and Louise Wallace Burrell, was placed in the center of the front façade and remains there today.
Following Rev. White, Rev. B. H. Payne began his tenure as pastor, a term that lasted nearly forty years, until 1965. During this time, the building underwent a number of structural changes and upgrades and was rededicated in 1954.
It was during Rev. Louis Cunningham’s pastorate, from 1965 to 1974, that the building’s tower was removed, front façade reconfigured, brick front installed, siding placed over the side and rear exterior walls, and a two-story concrete block addition built on the back of the church. On the interior, a dividing wall was inserted to create a foyer, separating the entryway from the sanctuary. The foyer serves as a meeting place and gallery for memorial plaques and photographs of the congregation and former pastors. The many changes instituted by Rev. Cunningham reflect his ministry’s emphasis on education and Bible study, and his wish to attract students from the local colleges to church services. The basement also was upgraded to create meeting, teaching, and fellowship space.
In the 1980s, wood paneling was installed in the sanctuary, which covers drawings that children in the congregation had drawn on the walls. In 2004, the current pastor, Rev. Wright, a member of the congregation since childhood, came to Calvary as interim pastor and was installed as pastor the next year.
From the entrance, members of the congregation climb steps to the foyer to enter the sanctuary, which contains eleven rows of oak pews divided by a wide aisle. The altar area contains an elaborate oak lectern and seats for the choir, both of which face the congregation. A series of stained glass windows line the sanctuary walls.
This point of interest is part of the tour: Religious Buildings in Downtown Ithaca