A blessing by a bishop could mean a revival for the Mount Tabor church in Mount Holly Springs.

The mid-Atlantic regional office of the AME Zion Church plans to sell the long-abandoned building on Cedar Avenue to the borough for $1, Carmen James said Monday. “They are getting the paperwork together.”

James is a volunteer with the Mount Tabor Preservation Project, a grassroots organization working to preserve the church and the adjoining cemetery. She attended the church from age 6 to 20.

“We are moving in the right direction,” James said. “We are very optimistic about the outcome.”

The Borough Council in late May authorized solicitor Mark Allshouse to petition the Cumberland County court to grant the borough ownership of what was the spiritual hub of a once-thriving African American community. The quiet title action is seen as a necessary step for project volunteers to seek grant funding.

Coverage of this decision triggered a question over whether the Mount Holly Springs church belonged to a sister congregation, the Mount Tabor AME Church of Avondale, Chester County. That, in turn, prompted the council to put the quiet title on hold while the regional office investigated the claim.

Deed searches

Lindsay Varner, director of community outreach for the Cumberland County Historical Society, became involved in the preservation of the Cedar Avenue church when she was director of the Heart & Soul initiative to gather stories of the greater Carlisle area.

In recent years, project volunteers have conducted multiple deed searches of county records in an attempt to identify the owner of the Mount Holly Springs church. All that research was sent to the regional office where a staff attorney examined the documents for information linking the Cedar Avenue building to the ministry and mission of the AME Zion church, Varner said. “They have a claim to the church. They were able to find one.”

As a result, the regional office is drawing up the paperwork to not only prove that ownership but to affirm the right of the AME Zion church to sell the Cedar Avenue building to the borough for $1, Varner said. She said once that paperwork is ready project volunteers could bring the matter before the council as early as the Nov. 4 meeting.

James, who served as a liaison between the Mount Tabor Preservation Project and the regional office, said she received a phone call from the staff of Bishop W. Darin Moore asking whether the volunteers will continue to preserve the site as the Mount Tabor church. “We had that in our plan all along,” James told the council Monday.

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Varner was thrilled by the news the AME Zion Church has ownership and thus the right to sell the building. “Having it in the borough’s hands will allow us to look toward the future of the property and the preservation of the church,” Varner said Wednesday. “We are at the point where we are ready to start raising funds. The next grant cycle is 2020.”

Feasibility study

An early step will be to conduct a feasibility study of the Cedar Avenue building to determine the next steps in its preservation, Varner said. She added the church is in dire need of work to stabilize its roof, foundation and front façade – any of which could collapse with further deterioration.

In early May, borough solicitor Mark Allshouse estimated the cost of the quiet title at $14,000 in legal and advertising fees. He based his figures on a similar case he finished in Dauphin County.

Now that ownership has been established, James is hopeful the processing fees would be considerably less, perhaps only a few hundred dollars.

“It’s a much better outcome for the borough and for us,” Varner said. “I am hoping that by Thanksgiving the whole thing could be resolved.” That would give project volunteers something to be thankful for along with momentum into the New Year for fundraising.

The history of the Mount Tabor church in Mount Holly Springs goes back to Elias Parker, a former slave from Hagerstown, Maryland. Parkers arrived in Cumberland County in 1865 after serving with the U.S. Colored Troops during the Civil War.

A Baptist minister, Parker was also a mason and carpenter who built the church on Cedar Avenue. The congregation was active until about 1970 when many of the worshipers moved away to follow work. In recent history, the Gumby family has served as caretakers of the abandoned church.

The effort to preserve the church goes back to 2016 and a project by Pam Still to interview local residents of their memories growing up in town. Since then, the local community has cleared the grounds around the church and removed its contents for safe keeping.

Volunteers have created an awareness of the church and its significance with bus tours and videos that have reached a nationwide audience. There has been a 3D scan of the church and a ground penetrating radar survey of the cemetery grounds. Further preservation efforts hinged on the issue of ownership, which now appears to be resolved.

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Email Joseph Cress at jcress@cumberlink.com.