St. John the Baptist Church and the school it built are foundation of a close-knit community
Placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1994, the old St. John the Baptist Church Dorseyville is in the process of celebrating its 150th anniversary in its original building.
On Saturday, a historic marker was erected at the site, across the street from a now-abandoned schoolhouse built by church members. The two buildings together are hallmarks of what the church has represented to the small community for a century and a half.
On Mar. 18, the church will host another celebration that pairs the two objectives of the church when it honors the 35 years the Alfretta T. Gant Scholarship has been awarded.
“She was a teacher at the Old Dorseyville School for colored children before they were allowed to attend other schools in the area,” said longtime church member Francesca M. Mellieon-Williams.
The celebration will continue with the church’s official anniversary of its 150 years with its July 15 service at 11:30 p.m.
“It will be set up similar to a family celebration with food, activities as former members and descendants of members come back to visit with us,” she continued.
Older members of the church have fond memories of the church, the school and the small surrounding community.
“My thing is the stability of the church,” said Caroline Wilson, a 70-year-old woman who has been a member at St. John’s since se was 7. “All the years that we have been here and we are still here.”
“The stability of this church is amazing,” she continued. “All these years we have been here and we are still here.”
Wilson is troubled that the youth of the area “don’t quite understand the goodness of Dorseyville,” Wilson said. “You all just don’t know what a gold mine you are standing on.”
She says she believes the youth will eventually come around based on the accomplishments of the church’s earliest pastors.
In its long history, the church has only had four leaders, beginning the founding pastor, the Rev. Bazil Dorsey, the Rev. Larry Washington, the Rev. Handy Dominique, the Rev. Joseph Dandridge, and its present pastor, the Rev. Gregory Coates.
“If they did all this,” she said, sweeping her hand across the interior of the big church, “It makes me wonder what happened to us. “We have come a long way but we have a long way to go.”
The nearby schoolhouse is just a couple of years younger than the church, but the result of church elders’ understanding of the value of education. Many present and past church members, including Wilson, have been educators.
She walked to church from the not-so-close Supple Plantation for school on weekdays and for church on Sundays. Her teacher was Mrs. Gant, the namesake of the scholarship.
“We had hand-me-down desks and the books we had were so old we didn’t even have room to write our names in them,” Wilson said.
The church has been an important part of her life as long as you can remember.
“I was baptized here at 12, I sang in the choir, I worked with the youth, I taught Sunday School and I still do what I can do,” Wilson said. “I love my church and I love what love my church members.”
Another of the church’s elder members, Ovile Watkins, said he also had “very fond memories” of the church and the school.
“I can remember the benevolence, the sheer caring, which in my estimation the church practiced,” he said. He also remembered the important role the church played and continues to play in the community.
“If there is anybody who gets sick, there is an outpouring of support from the church, though this is nothing new,” Watkins said, adding he later found out the church has supported its members from its inception. “If there was someone who passed, there was always an abundance of food prepared.”
Normally, today’s attendance at the church is somewhere between 150 and 175 people, but when another church is visiting or it’s a special occasion, it’s standing room only in the 500-seat church.
“That’s why we’re ‘big’ St. John is because we have a big heart and our caring and devotion to our members,” Watkins said.
Ulysses Douglas, 80, another of the older church members, shard his fond memories of the church and the school.
“This little place has a lot of history,” he said, especially when it comes to educators. Douglas was, like Wilson, another. “But we’ve also got educators from here, we’ve got lawyers from here, doctors, right out of this little place here.”
He also talked about the sense of community Dorseyville possessed back in the day and still today.
“We weren’t rich in love, but we were rich gathering here and I wouldn’t want it any other way,” Douglas said.
Current pastor Coats, only the fifth pastor the church has had, has already been with the church for 21 years.
“My first Sunday leading the congregation after I had been appointed pastor was the church’s anniversary,” he said, and even from that first Sunday, he knew St. John’s was a special place. “There has always been a very special relationship between the pastor and the congregation of this church.”
“When I came to St. John the thing that probably struck me the most is if someone had asked me what St. John and Dorseyville meant to me it would be community because this community was made of long-lasting families that became an extended family,” Coats said.
“Everybody felt – and still does – as if they belonged to every body else and that’s why we’re the church of love and longevity,” he said. “I believe that love extends not just to the worship experience but from house to house.”