Close to 150 people descended Sunday on a relatively small church near the corner of Hulett and Albany streets in Schenectady to sing, dance, pray and celebrate the 180th anniversary of one of the oldest African American churches in the region.
Close to 80 people attended an 11 a.m. service recognizing the anniversary of the Duryee Memorial A.M.E. Zion Church. A similar number of people gathered once again for a special 4 p.m. service. The room was filled with church members and non-members alike, and the congregation was filled with joy to mark a significant milestone in the institution's history.
Gregory Davenport, chairman of the anniversary committee and president of the trustee board at the church, said it’s the oldest black church in the community, and one that has been a pillar in the Hamilton Hill neighborhood and the city as a whole.
“It says a lot,” Davenport said of the 18 decades in existence. “A lot of churches break up, but this one stayed strong. We have a lot of vibrant members of our congregation. People say they come in and get the spirit of love.”
The Rev. Isaac Duryee founded the first African American church in the city in 1837. The Duryee church was built at 116 Jay St., where a sign denoting its historical significance stands today. The church itself later moved to 307 Hulett St., where it is home to about 75 members, Davenport said.
“We’ve come this far by faith,” he said.
The anniversary was the focus of a number of other events in the weeks leading up to the service, including a concert and banquet, Davenport said. The Schenectady City Council recognized the Duryee Church in April with a ceremonial resolution honoring its role in the community. The services were a sort of bookend to the celebration, Davenport said.
A committee of church members had been planning the 180th anniversary activities close to two years in advance, said the Rev. Ruby J. Smith. The church is vital to community members, she said, making its longevity not just impressive, but critical to those who have been coming back for decades.
On Sunday, members of the congregation ranged from young children to some older residents who needed help walking to their seats. One woman said the church has been a constant in her life for more than 40 years, and is a place she comes to find joy.
Valerie Beekman, a member of the Consecration Temple Church of God in Christ in Schenectady, spoke and sang at the Duryee service. She previously served as an alderwoman for the Amsterdam Common Council, the first African American to do so.
In her remarks to the congregation, she emphasized the importance of faith. She harkened back to when the church was founded in 1837, when members didn’t have television or telephones, but they had faith, she said.
She suggested that getting back to the importance of faith could be an inspirational and uniting tool for the country, drawing cheers from the crowd.
Echoing Davenport’s message, she told attendees to “look at what we’ve come from by faith.”