‘A place for everyone’: Mount Calvary Baptist Church celebrates 175 years in Niles

Published 5:24 pm Thursday, March 14, 2024

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NILES — Nestled inside the historic Ferry Street neighborhood is one of the oldest African American Baptist churches in Southwest Michigan, a church that has served the Niles area as a beacon of hope, worship and community for nearly two centuries. 

Mount. Calvary Baptist Church, 601 Ferry St., is celebrating 175 years as a space of faith and fellowship. The Berrien County Board of Commissioners approved an honorary resolution for the church last month and the City of Niles issued a special proclamation in January declaring March 24 as Mount Calvary Baptist Church Day.

“It’s a blessing, it’s a privilege and I’m excited for the ministry and the community,” said Rev. Bryant L. Bacon. “I’m 22 years in this process so I’m excited for everybody. I’m just glad that we were able to be a part of that. Hopefully, we can get that 200, so that’s my plan. 

“Once I get to 200, then I’m gonna be done,” Bacon joked.

Mount Calvary has served the Niles area since the congregation first formed in 1849 as the Second Baptist Church. In 1851, the Reverends J.W. Hackley and D.G. Lett organized the Second Baptist Church under the Anti-Slavery Baptist Association. It has been located at the corner of Sixth and Ferry Streets since 1851, first on the southeast corner of that intersection and later on the northeast corner where it currently stands.

Four church buildings have housed the congregation, the first two being log buildings, the third church constructed in 1950-51 and a new sanctuary constructed in 1971. The church’s name changed to Mount Calvary on March 4, 1951. From the pre-Civil War era to the COVID Pandemic and everything in between, the church has stood the test of time to serve the needs of its community. For Bacon and his congregation, it is an honor to continue to build upon the legacy established there.

“Mount Calvary is so intertwined with black history because this church was organized during slavery time,” said Alice Fletcher, a member of the church since 2001. “It’s one of those things that when I’m looking at black history, I’m also looking at Mount Calvary’s history. Even though I wasn’t here at the time, we as a church body were intertwined into that. It’s interesting to look at some of the pictures and the articles that were written about Mount Calvary over the years and It’s just a great feeling to be a part of something that has been around for this long because institutions don’t ordinarily stay together. You got people with different views and different ideas.”

While much has transpired in the world over the course of its existence Mount Calvary’s mission to serve its community has not changed. The church has provided church and community members with a wide variety of programs and outreach over the years, including mobile food pantries, clothing ministry, dinner basket giveaways, trunk-or-treats, peace marches and more.

“I think we’ve established a reputation in the community as a church that has been there to meet the needs when we could with our pantry and with outreaches that we’ve done throughout the whole entire community,” Bacon said. “I think we’ve established a pretty good foundation of being a church that’s not just for our particular neighborhood but for the whole entire community.”

“I’ve seen that outreach,” said Minister Linda Bradford, who has been with the church for 35 years. “It’s always been what this church has done and that’s why I’m still here because I like what they’re doing. It’s built on a Christian Foundation. We didn’t change the message, we changed the method. We keep up with whatever is changing but our message is always the same.”

‘A place for everyone’

For 175 years, Mount Calvary has provided people from all walks of life with a place to belong. Bradford and Fletcher were invited by friends to Mount Calvary 35 and 23 years ago respectively and have been here ever since. 

“I didn’t feel like I was an outcast because I did come here from another denomination,” Bradford said. “This was just a place for me and ever since it’s been my family.”

“I could speak my opinion freely,” Fletcher added. “Not going against the pastor but even if I disagree, I was heard. I was heard and I just felt that always.”

Alana Nave, one of the church’s newest members, was drawn to its family atmosphere.

“Other churches I had gone to just felt more like a big corporation where this is more like home,” said Alana Nave, one of the church’s newest members. “You can feel the family dynamic, so I really liked that part.”

The congregation is made up of more than just the Niles community. Members hail from cities such as Benton Harbor, South Bend, Indiana, Dowagiac and beyond.

“We welcome everybody,” Bradford added. “We are a ‘welcome everyone’ church. Come as you are, bring your burdens, bring your cares. Whatever shape you’re in, come on in and we can welcome you in. If you listen to our pastor long enough, you will grow. If you show up, you will grow up.”

Glenn Howard, seeking a new church amid the pandemic, found his way to Mount Calvary and has made it his new church home. 

“I was looking for God to put on my heart to look for a church home and get involved in the community,” he said. “I looked at a map and there are 400 churches around here. I walked in the doors to Mount Calvary at the time and never looked back.”

For Howard, the community engagement is something he has enjoyed as a church member.

“Just just showing the community love,” he said. “We did a Christmas toy store a couple times and we’re showing that people care. There’s so much negativity out there in the world. There are people here doing good and to be that beacon of light for people for 175 years is special.”

Ready for what’s next

Bacon, a Dowagiac native, came to Niles 22 years ago to become Mount Calvary’s pastor. Since then, he has emphasized community outreach and ushered the church into the digital age, using technology to better reach the congregation.

Bradford, who served on the committee that brought Bacon to Mount Calvary, is proud of what he has accomplished since assuming the role of pastor.

We brought him here and (the church) has been growing ever since,” she said. “We couldn’t have done anything better than bringing him into this Body of Christ. He came in to build on what our forefathers had already done a great job at building and he just kept that going. I look at some of the names of the people that have gone on before that helped build this church into what it is today. Some of the great people that were in this community, went to school here and were involved in other things here and he has built on what was already here and he’s taking it to a higher level.”

“He’s the type of Pastor that you love,” said Lisa Echols, who has been attending Mount Calvary for 50 years. “He’s understanding, his teaching is so real and it gets to your heart. That’s what I love and it’s what’s got me grounded here in Mount Calvary today, 50 years later.”

From radio ministry to creating an active online presence, embracing technology to reach the congregation helped the church survive the pandemic.

“COVID did a number on a lot of churches because they had no pivot point,” Fletcher said. “We had a pastor (in Bacon) that had a vision and a foresight. He was moving in that direction already so he was able to with a little help. It’s been a struggle but we’re getting there.”

“I think it had a lot to do with the people who were prepared,” he said. “Even though we weren’t prepared for the pandemic, they were prepared to be able to support the church. At the same time, the pandemic taught me some lessons too that we actually needed to do some things different than we were prior to the pandemic. So it changed the way we worshiped – not who we worship but how we worship – it also made us focus on what was the most important thing that the church was supposed to be doing in our community. It made us refocus from a standpoint of preparation where a lot of churches couldn’t rebound back from it. We never were out of it. We just weren’t in the building but we were still connected close to one another.”

The pandemic is just the latest hurdle Mount Calvary has overcome over the last 175 years and it will not be the last. Bacon is proud of Mount Calvary and its history and looks forward to the future of the church.

“Just thinking about what people actually went through to make this thing happen,” Bacon said. “In 1849, you’re talking about anti-slavery, the formation of the church and what people actually had to go through in order for it to become a church and for people to be able to worship, the sacrifices. We walk these halls, you think about all the sacrifices that other people have had to make in order for us to be here where we are today. I appreciate it; I think of all of the predecessors that came before me and I’m just trying to add to the legacy and maybe somebody else will keep it going.”

Community members are encouraged to attend Mount Calvary’s 175th anniversary service at 10 a.m. Sunday, March 17. The church is also hosting a special choir concert at 4 p.m. Saturday.

The history of Mt. Calvary Baptist Church 

1849 – Second Baptist Church (later to become Mt. Calvary) established in Niles on the southeast corner of Sixth and Ferry streets. 

1863 – 20 people baptized at revival held by the Rev. Beaton.

1872 – Lot where the church, a log cabin, stood exchanged for site on northeast corner of the same streets. 

1944 – Under leadership of the Rev. R.B. Alexander, congregation votes to build addition to Mt. Calvary building at a cost of $22,000. 

1951 – Addition officially dedicated. During construction, name was changed to Mt. Calvary Baptist Church.

1966 – The Rev. R.B. Nabors leads church and Cherub choir was formed. Membership grows. 

1970 – More expansion commences at the facility. 

1971 – Official dedication of additional expansion. The Rev. W.L. Daniel assumes pastorship. 1987 – Membership increases to approximately 400. Sunday school sees an increase. Outreach ministry established. 

1987 on – Several programs established under leadership of the Rev. Daniel including The Nurse’s Guild, The Mother’s Board, The Deaconess Board, The Pastor’s Bible Class, The Pastor’s Inspirational choir, The Male Chorus, The Pew Rally, The Pastor’s Aide Committee, The Youth Department and the Martin Luther King Community Celebration. 

1994 – Historical marker dedicated and presented by Michigan Historical Commission. 

1999 – Niles Mayor Daniel Eyclesbymer proclaims March 14, 1999 as Mount Calvary Baptist Church Day on its 150th anniversary. 

2001 – The Rev. Daniel passes away. The Rev. Bryant Bacon assumes pastorship until permanent pastor could be elected. 

2002 – The Rev. Bacon installed as pastor for Mt. Calvary Baptist Church. Under his leadership, Christ Alive Outreach Program is formed, Parsonage is renovated, parking lot is added, church basement is renovated into a Youth Activity Center. 

2003 – Mt. Calvary begins a radio broadcast ministry every Sunday morning.

2009 – Mt. Calvary celebrates 160 years of ministry.

2022 – Rev. Bacon celebrates 20 years as Mt. Calvary pastor.

2024 – Mt. Calvary celebrates 175 years of ministry.