TERRE HAUTE —
A piece of spiritual history along Terre Haute’s 13th Street corridor came to an end Friday with the demolition of the 105-year-old Free Will Baptist Church.
Ozella Sweatt, a 1959 graduate of the former Wiley High School, said she was baptized in the church as a young girl.
“My parents belong there. I attended there through high school,” Sweatt said.
“When I was there, the Rev. Henry Clay Maxwell was the pastor of the church. He was a great pastor. I still have a picture of him,” said Sweatt, who lives near the church site.
“It has a lot of memories for me, but it needed to come down. People had died and moved away and it was vacant for a long time. I am so thankful the city tore it down,” Sweatt said.
Robert Uzzell, at 83, is among the oldest remaining members of the Free Will Baptist Church congregation, which now has about 30 members.
A history of the church, kept on file at the Vigo County Historical Society Museum, shows Uzzell’s family was among several Kansas-bound settlers leaving North Carolina who stopped and stayed in Terre Haute in 1880. Those settlers organized a church the same year.
By 1886, the group had obtained ground for a new church, first called Stranger’s Tabernacle and then Free Will Baptist Church, at the corner of South 14th and Dean streets, historical documents show. That’s the location of Robert Uzzell’s current home.
“I bought this land from my mother who got it after the church moved,” Uzzell said Friday. “I have been a member of the church since 1953 and for the rest of my life. I moved up to be a deacon.”
The Free Will Baptist Church congregation then in 1907 built a stone church at 1226 S. 13th St., at the corner of 13th and Franklin Streets. That church saw a reorganization of the congregation in 1982, according to the church’s cornerstone.
By Friday afternoon, an excavator had converted the church into a pile of wood and stone. Before that, workers removed two glass doors to the church, which had the name of Herman Oglesby, the church’s previous pastor who left in 2008.
“The church lost a lot of members and lost the pastor. It is not easy to get a pastor who can fill the pews,” Uzzell said. “The congregation couldn’t afford the water and other things,” he said, which led to the building being left vacant for several years. “I think the church building had to come down, it was damaged, with water raining down” on the building’s interior.
The city of Terre Haute had condemned the building, and this year the building was placed onto the city’s demolition schedule.
“We didn’t think we would be able to do it till next year, but we got a little bit of extra money for demolition, so it was on the demolition schedule to be done,” said Mayor Duke Bennett. “The church wanted to save the stained glass windows, so they hired somebody and got the windows out.”
The church still owns the land, but it has liens on the property, including a demolition lien from the city.
“They would like to build a new church and we could probably donate the land to them as we want it to be developed in some way. But that is something we have to sort out later as there will be liens on it, and all that will have to be cleared,” the mayor said.
The city also owns a lot to the north, which the city could, in the future, donate once the congregation has raised money to build a new church, the mayor said.
Pastor C. Dwayne Malone, who has been pastor for the last year, said the north wall and roof of the church were damaged, allowing water to damage the interior of the building. The congregation has been meeting in the church’s parsonage at 1401 S. 11 1/2 St.
“We are moving forward with plans to rebuild here. We should have some architectural drawings of what the future structure will look like, hopefully by July,” Malone said.
Malone said the church has formed a steering committee to create a new church, which he sees as “a catalyst to not only create a spiritual awakening in this part of the community, but also continue to grow it and have economic and community growth within the 13th Street corridor boundaries.”
Malone hopes to revive a 13th Street Corridor Committee, first formed in 2004, to include city officials to help plan economic and community development in the area. Malone said the church’s cornerstone, some pews, doors and church bell were to be saved to be part of a new building.
Reporter Howard Greninger can be reached at (812) 231-4204 or email@example.com.