The Roman Catholic Church has been reeling for a week, following revelations of a grand jury investigation into widespread sexual misconduct. An astounding 301 priests are accused of abusing more than 1,000 children in Pennsylvania over the past six decades, and some diocesan administrators are alleged to have protected some of the predators by covering up their crimes.
It is a trying time for the Roman Catholic Church, which is prominent throughout the state, especially in the southwestern corner. The healing process will be long while, at the same time, the church further strengthens precautions and sanctions against abuse.
Last week in Washington, in a jarring juxtaposition, a church of a different denomination celebrated a remarkable milestone. St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church, on Ridge Avenue, marked its 200th birthday with a special service.
St. Paul, founded in 1818, is among the oldest black Methodist churches west of the Allegheny Mountains. It has sat on Ridge Avenue since 1994, one of several locations it has had in the city.
But like the Roman Catholic Church, and many other faiths across the globe, AME has experienced its share of turmoil. Only its most tumultuous period occurred before it was formed.
The African Methodist Episcopal Church is the byproduct of racial discrimination – a disgraceful mindset that still exists, but was especially prevalent the first century this nation existed. Slavery would not be legally abolished until 1863, and blacks would be terrorized and/or lynched for decades afterward.
Gideon Bradsahaw of the Observer-Reporter attended the anniversary service and reported that AME started to take form in Philadelphia in 1787, when a group of African-American congregants left St. George’s ME Church to protest discriminatory practices. The people who left formed the Free African Society, which led to the start of AME.
Many of St. Paul’s founders, Bradshaw added, came from First Methodist Episcopal Church in Washington. There were an estimated dozen African-American families living in the city when St. Paul opened in 1818, and two years later, “colored classes” were removed from the church rolls at First Methodist Episcopal.
Lorraine Walls-Perry is well aware of how St. Paul evolved and how it has functioned. She lives in Pittsburgh now, but grew up in Washington and returned for the celebration of her former church. Walls-Perry, 70, has a keen awareness of other religions as well.
She told the O-R: “I think most church denominations were created because of a difference of theology, but this was definitely founded because of discrimination.”
St. Paul’s congregation has plummeted over the years, from an estimated 200-plus in the 1950s to about 70 today. About 20 regularly attend services.
But the church is to be commended for its endurance and perseverance, for being historic, for providing a true freedom of religion for its earliest members – and current ones. That latter group includes Charleszine Ponton, 93, of Washington, the oldest member, whose grandparents were married there in 1891.
During a week that religion took a hit in the region, St. Paul AME enjoyed a richly deserved celebration. Happy 200th.