A savior in a VW Beetle comes to historic church's rescue

SEBEN16
Al Terrell inspects one of the tombstones at the abandoned Ebenezer A.M.E. Church and cemetery.

The crumbling, one-room house of worship and its toppled gravestones had been all but hidden behind a towering wall of weeds for years when Alvin Terrell drove up in his yellow VW Beetle this summer and vowed, "No more."

The semiretired data analyst/kindergarten teacher had long lived right down the road from the abandoned Ebenezer A.M.E. Church in East Whiteland Township, a congregation founded in 1832 for freed slaves and indentured servants. Once, nearly 20 years ago, he and his teenage son even helped clear away brush as part of an Eagle Scout project. But without someone to continually care for the property, he said, "Mother Nature took it back."

Now, the 71-year-old Terrell is pledging to reclaim it, to restore the Chester County church to some semblance of its former sacred self.

"I just feel like the people buried here deserved better," said Terrell, who plans to help create a nonprofit whose first charitable act will be the rebuilding of Ebenezer, abandoned since the early 1900s. "This is history."

He already has teamed up with local volunteers - including a pastor/landscaper, a tree-care specialist, two teachers, Girl Scouts, and a Willistown Boy Scout troop - to clear the two-acre tract on Bacton Hill Road. Last month, they began wading through poison ivy, chopping at weeds, and hauling away debris.

Tim Caban, chairman of the East Whiteland Township Historical Commission, called the mission daunting but "terrific."

Ebenezer's plight, the subject of an Inquirer story in July, has long been a worry for nearby residents and preservationists. Rescue efforts have proceeded in fits and starts, with intermittent volunteer cleanups. Township officials, though, were cautious about such efforts because they believed the property was owned by the African Methodist Episcopal Church, whose approval was needed before work could be done there. Contacting A.M.E. officials proved difficult, and tax records regarding ownership were unclear.

Consequently, following bursts of labor, the property would languish.

"It makes you feel very, very sad," Tia Manon, of Paoli, said in a July interview. She researched Ebenezer's history 10 years earlier because family lore had it that a relative helped found the church.

Ebenezer Church was built when a Quaker abolitionist transferred the land to three African Americans in 1832. The stone structure, with an entrance facing the street and a stone pulpit opposite the door, became a center of the surrounding African American community, the site of revivals and ice cream socials.

Its cemetery was the resting place of at least 80 people, including several Civil War veterans.

In the early 1900s, the church building and its grounds were left behind, perhaps by a congregation that moved to another building, or just couldn't afford to maintain it. Eventually, the walls crumbled and the roof fell in.

Ebenezer is one of many similarly abandoned church sites throughout the nation, experts say.

Last month, when Terrell decided to clean up the property, he knew he needed help and permission. At a fund-raiser for St. Charles Borromeo Seminary at the Malvern Retreat House, he met Kathy Duffy, of West Chester. During their conversation, Duffy mentioned that her son was looking for an Eagle Scout project. Terrell recognized a serendipitous moment - or what Duffy described more divinely as "just God."

Duffy's son, Luke Phayre, 15, and Terrell researched the property and talked with township officials. They also sought permission for the cleanup from the First District of the A.M.E. Church in Philadelphia, and got it. Phayre said he talked to Bishop Gregory Ingram, who sent a letter approving the project and commending Phayre for his initiative.

"I think it's so noble," Bishop Ingram said in an interview Friday. ". . . I feel somewhat embarrassed that I haven't been out there. But I will.

"For anyone to make themselves available to champion a cause like this," he said, "it shows that in the midst of all the negativity in the world, wonderful things are happening."

For Phayre, "This is more gratifying than other Eagle Scout projects like building a bench," the teen said. "It's historical, and there are Civil War soldiers there who were forgotten."

He and Terrell want to honor the cemetery's veterans at a November ceremony.

Terrell's plan to create a foundation hinges on collaboration with his son, Joseph, 25, who started a social-media website called Greekstree.com to connect members of fraternities and sororities. The younger Terrell plans to use the site to harness the time and money of members to start charitable projects like the restoration of the Ebenezer church.

The Terrells do not yet know what the project might cost.

Bonnie Reason, of Paoli, who has relatives buried in the cemetery, appreciates the effort.

In 1998, the first time Al Terrell cleared the property as part of his son Andrew's Eagle Scout project, he spied the grave of Civil War soldier Joshua Johnson, one of Reason's ancestors. It was a sight he could not put aside.

Johnson, who was born in 1846 and died in 1916, fought with the U.S. Colored Troops regiment. His remarkably pristine gravestone lies close to the church; a tattered American flag is planted nearby. Thoughts of Johnson's heroic life helped motivate Terrell, an Army veteran, to save Ebenezer.

When Terrell, armed with his clippers, stood before the imposing phalanx of growth last month, he thought of Johnson, and began cutting away at the weeds. He cleared the first path so that a crew of volunteers could enter the site, and it led to Johnson's grave.

Standing over it recently, he said: "That's my buddy."

kholmes@phillynews.com

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