By Brother Samuel Aymer incorporating an earlier work by Sister Lucilla Benjamin, both of Ebenezer Congregation
Here I raise my Ebenezer
Hither by Thy help I’m come
And I hope, by Thy good pleasure
Safely to arrive at home
The Ebenezer Methodist Church enjoys a very rich history. In fact it is a history that points to two and not one Ebenezer, although the earlier building was not referred to as “Ebenezer” but simply as the ‘first Methodist Chapel’. With the work of the early pioneers, the Methodist Society in Antigua increased in numbers and had to find a meeting place, other than private houses, large enough to accommodate the people who attended divine worship. This pointed to the need to build the first Methodist Chapel. That Chapel, which we have chosen to refer to as the “First Ebenezer,” in time outgrew its capacity to house and accommodate the rapid increase in the Church’s membership and adherents brought about by the strident evangelism of the early pioneers including Nathaniel Gilbert, John Baxter, Francis Gilbert and the celebrated slaves Sophie Campbell and Mary Alley, Bessie and others. This gave rise to the construction of the edifice we have come to inherit on St. Mary’s Street, and which is referred to as the “Second Ebenezer.”
THE FIRST EBENEZER
What do we know of the first chapel?
We know that by the time Dr. Thomas Coke arrived in St. Johns, Antigua on Christmas Day 1876, and met with John Baxter, he stated that in the evening and afternoon he preached to very large congregations and that “our Society in the Island is near 2000.” This was a formidable congregation at any period and moreso for that time. We also know that the first Ebenezer (or Methodist Chapel) had already been built and in use; for Dr. Coke held his first service in “our chapel and read prayers preached and administered the sacrament” on that Christmas Day. It is also worthy of note that the congregation was a mixed one as Dr Coke lamented the fact that “the ladies and gentlemen of the town so filled the house, that the poor, dear Negroes who built it have been entirely shut out, except for the mornings and yet they bear this, not only with patience, but with joy.”
We know, too, that the First Ebenezer was proudly referred to as a “time honoured edifice” and “a neat strong wooden chapel in Tanner Street, where many an eloquent Preacher have expatiated on Divine theses: many a religious service has been held and many a soul has started on the heavenly journey.” We know, further, that at the time of Gilbert’s death in 1774, it has been recorded that he left some 200 members in the Methodist Society. John Baxter seemingly grew this congregation to some 2000 which Coke found worshipping in “our Chapel” in St. Johns at the time of his arrival. It was a natural progression, in keeping with the character of the man as a builder, that John Baxter would have been concerned enough to pioneer and steer the building of this First Chapel to accommodate the growing membership. It has been recorded that “in the year 1783, John Baxter set about building a Methodist Chapel in St. Johns, Antigua.” It is further recorded that “this was the first Methodist Chapel to be built in the West Indies… It was a wooden structure capable of seating 2000 people. … The Methodist people met for worship in this wooden building until 1839, when the congregation moved into the large stone and brick building on St. Mary’s Street…. This noble edifice stands today as a landmark in the history of Methodism in Antigua.”
THE SECOND EBENEZER (The St. Mary’s Street Site)
The Second Ebenezer, our present Chapel, is built on land ‘granted by the Legislature (the Government) in the Town of St. Johns”. The foundation stone was laid on 10th February 1837, a very detailed account of which is chronicled in “The Weekly Register Newspaper,” and the Chapel was solemnly dedicated two years later to the worship and service of Almighty God on 10th February 1839. There were 26 Methodists (or Wesleyans as we were then known) Ministers present, including the 5 resident Ministers.
The opening sermons were preached on the Friday, by the Rev. John Parkes, and in the evening of the same day, by the Rev. Mr. Westerby, Moravian Missionary, and later Bishop of the United Brethrens Church in Antigua. On the following Sabbath the services were resumed by the Rev. John Cameron, preaching in the forenoon, and by the Rev. Jesse Pilcher, who preached in the evening. A sermon was also preached in the afternoon by the Rev. Lancelot Railton. It should be recorded that while the Rev. Mr.Cox raised the pecuniary means, and devoted time and attention to the erection of the Chapel, he was greatly aided by the architectural skills and unwearied exertions of his colleague, the Rev. Mr. Pilcher.
The Earthquake Of 1843
For nearly four years this building was used for worship until in February 1843, when it was shaken to its base by a severe earthquake that destroyed the Cathedral, and damaged property to a considerable extent. The District Meeting was again meeting in Antigua and had closed its sittings on the previous day. The Lord’s Supper had been partaken of by the assembled Ministers, after listening to a discourse from one of their number of the Judgment of the Great Day. Some of the Missionaries embarked that evening for St.Kitts, Nevis and the foreign islands; but the Dominica brethren remained until the following day. On the eve of embarkation one of them stepped into the Mission House to pay for a box which he had lately purchased at a Wesleyan Bazaar, when the vibration was felt. The Mission party instantly fled to the street, which soon became filled with persons of every age and rank, who expected every moment that the earth would swallow its inhabitants. The Wesleyan Chapel heaved and tossed like a pendulum of a clock. The shock lasted fully three to four minutes, and is an event which will not soon be forgotten. The vibration continued at intervals for several days, but with diminished severity…….
On the following Sunday the Wesleyans worshipped in the Mico School room, or under the shady trees in
the vicinity of the building. The Episcopalians resorted to the Court House; and a part of their congregation worshipped afterwards at the Presbyterian Church in the afternoons of the Lord’s Day. The Legislature generously placed a sum of money at the disposal of the Wesleyans for removing the upper portion of the Chapel; and the schoolroom was then rendered available for worship, in which place Divine service was continued until the Chapel was rebuilt.
The Rev. Hilton Cheesbrough seemed to have been sent to Antigua to await this disastrous earthquake, and then to provide the necessary means for restoring the building. The inhabitants promptly and handsomely responded to the calls made on their liberality; and ably assisted by his young colleague, the Rev. William Ingram, Mr.Cheesbrough soon saw his chapel ready to receive worshippers. The debt that remained on the building previous to its partial demolition, was not increased by the indispensable work now done. The opening services were celebrated on a Sabbath day; when the Rev. Cheesbrough preached in the forenoon and the Rev. W.T. Weymouth in the evening.
Major Renovation: 1936 – 1937
Soon after 1930 it became obvious that major renovation of the interior of Ebenezer Chapel was required. It was decided that there should be new pews for the main floor of the Chapel, that a new rostrum incorporating the choir, was necessary, and that the eastern end of the Chapel needed redesigning. A new stone stairway on the southern side was erected. The Quarterly Meeting (the highest Council of the Church in the Island at that time) successfully opposed the proposal of the Methodist Missionary Society that the galleries be removed, that the main floor be raised and that there be a new design for the basement/schoolroom – including the removal of the many pillars that are there. In the event, that Quarterly Meeting was right in asserting that the removal of the galleries would seriously affect the ability of the Church to house the growing congregations, for since that time the Church membership has increased many times over.
The renovation work began in 1936 and was completed in 1937. During that time Sunday worship took place in the basement/schoolroom. The Rev. A. S. Reid was the Minister of the Church and Superintendent of the Circuit during the renovation
Exterior Work: 1955
When the Chapel was just over 100 years old, the exterior walls had a face lift. This was a major and important undertaking. The walls had become considerably pitted over the years. It must be remembered that the building material used originally was lime mortar and not cement. The work done in 1955 did not merely improve the appearance of the Chapel, it strengthened its walls. The Rev. James Davison was the Minister of the Church and Superintendent of the Circuit when this face lift was carried out.
The Roof Repairs: 1972
In 1972 it became necessary to do extensive work on the roof of the Chapel. The wall plates in some places had rotted completely. Many of the rafters and other timber also had to be replaced. All of this work was done with greenheart timber imported from Guyana. The strength of the roof was thus regained. The roof covering was almost altogether replaced with new heavy-gauge galvanized sheeting. Some of the original slate tiling, which had remained until then, were now finally removed. Much of the ceiling was also replaced. The ceiling, walls and interior woodwork and iron pillars were repainted. This work was carried out while the Rev. Donald C. Henry was Minister and Superintendent of the Circuit.
The Earthquake 8th October 1974
For the second time Ebenezer Chapel was rent by earthquake. Early on the morning of the 8th October 1974, along with the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, the St. Joseph Cathedral, and many other buildings in Antigua, Ebenezer suffered – in much the same way as it suffered in 1843. Separate surveys pronounced the Chapel as unsafe and declared that it should be pulled down, but suggested that there was a possibility of restoration.
Building of a Church Hall Complex and closure of Ebenezer
After much debate and heart-searching it was decided that a Hall should be built on the grounds, leaving the final decision as to the fate of the Chapel for later consideration. A minority believed that the time was ripe for a new type of complex building. A vast majority believed that Ebenezer just had to be restored. It was unthinkable that such an historic building and spiritual home to so many countless thousands of Methodists over the years should be demolished. The appropriate Government authority refused permission to build the Hall on the grounds, declaring that such a building would detract from this beauty spot in the centre of the City. Meanwhile, the congregation continued to worship in the damaged Chapel and slowly the need for urgency abated. No further attempt to pursue the urgency of the hall was made until late 1976.
The going was slow. A site had to be found which was as near to Ebenezer as possible. The decision was made to use the site adjacent to the Manse on St. Mary’s Street. It was not large enough to take the originally planned Hall but it would suffice if two Sunday morning Services were held. The design and working plans took a long time to prepare and finally, approval was given by the 1977 Conference meeting in Antigua. The site was cleared and ground was broken on Sunday 9th October 1977.
It was agreed that financing of the erection of the Hall be part of the insurance payments on the Chapel. The original estimate of $270,000.00 made in 1975, was now greatly increased. It was also decided to incorporate space for the Bookshop at the front of the Hall on the ground floor. This and so much else sent the cost to around $400,000.00. It was an impressive building and served a great need. Sunday Services were held at 6.30 am and 8.30 am and again at 7.15 pm while the week-day activities varied.
The Hall was opened on September 10th 1978. But before that was done Ebenezer Chapel had to be closed. There was an impressive Service at 8.30 am on that day. Present were the President of the Conference, the Rev. Donald C. Henry, the Secretary, the Rev. St. C Clarke, the Chairman of the District, the Rev. Neville D. Brodie, the Minister of the Church and Superintendent of the Circuit, the Rev. C. Leonard Carty, the Rev. A. Williams and the Rev. A Didier, at the time gave invaluable assistance to Ebenezer. Ebenezer was crowded. The lessons were read by the Revs. Didier and Williams. The prayers of intercession were led by the Rev. St. C Clarke. The President of the Conference brought greetings and the sermon was preached by the Chairman of the District. As symbolic of the closing of the Chapel, two Society Stewards, Miss Ethlyn Daniel and Mr. Robert Richards, carried the pulpit Bible and the Cross from the Chapel to the vestry to be removed to the Hall later in the day
Another Restoration – 1982
Uncertainty as to whether Ebenezer should be torn down and rebuilt or whether it could be restored, dogged the Church until late 1978. In a meeting which we have come to believe was directed by the Holy Spirit, Mr. Gerald Botteley of the Firm of Sir. Herbert Humphrey & McDonald of Birmingham, England, and a personal friend of the Revs. Donald Henry and Atherton Didier, was asked to undertake a thorough survey of the building so that a final decision could be taken. In November 1978 two engineers arrived from England and spent two weeks examining the building from below ground to the roof. Before leaving they were able to inform the Church authorities that Ebenezer could be restored. In January 1979 their Report was received in time for Synod, and in May of that year Connexional Conference, meeting in Barbados, gave the go ahead.
The financing would be difficult. It would require one million dollars, and if the delay was longer, the figure could go well beyond the million. There was some expectation that the work would go out to tender in October 1979, after which a contractor would be selected to undertake the restoration work. It is of interest that in 1979 the Government of Antigua and Barbuda declared the Ebenezer Chapel to be an historic building thus giving some urgency and purpose to the restoration work. Following the necessary bureaucratic procedures, the work for the restoration of the Ebenezer Chapel was awarded to Cage Enterprises Ltd. a leading Antiguan construction firm trading as Robert’s Construction. It has been reported that the damage was extensive and affected the very foundation of the Chapel.
Having been declared an Historic Building, it was also necessary that the basic features of the building be maintained and this added another facet to the complexity of the project. This, together with myriad structural engineering challenges to be overcome in order to make the Chapel as earthquake resistant as possible, added to the complexity of the work. This pointed to the need to employ a qualified resident engineer to carry out the day to day technical supervision of the Contractor’s work, to make modifications of design if and when necessary, to identify and assist in the resolution of problems and to maintain contact with the design engineer in the UK to keep him abreast of the progress of the work. Understandably, the initial thinking was to engage someone from the UK but this was seen as potentially cost prohibitive. However, the engineers Sir Herbert Humphrey & McDonald advised the Church that one of its members possessed the skills they required, in the person of Brother Addison Workman. Consequently Brother Addison Workman was appointed and saw the work through to the end.
April 1982 saw the start of Ebenezer second major physical restoration. The Rev Franklin A Roberts was the pastor at the time. The work was of a very technical nature having regard to the earlier construction method used in building the Chapel, the severity of the damage, and the need to maintain the integrity of the building especially as regards safety. The restoration was completed in 1983 after approximately one year under construction. On Sunday 27th February 1983 the Chapel was again dedicated to the Glory of God. A capacity congregation was present at this momentous occasion. It is worthy of note that the contractors waived a part of their construction fees as a donation to the clergy and congregation of Ebenezer.
The Current Situation
Since its significant renovations in the wake of the 1974 earthquake, the Ebenezer Chapel has, over the ensuing years, endured the ravages of several hurricanes (some severe) and minor earthquakes. While there has not been any devastating direct outcome from these natural disasters, the passage of time, through wear and tear, has taken its toll on the building and on its fittings and fixtures. In response, several “face lifts” have been administered to the Chapel largely in preparation to host various Conferences (synods). However, these have mainly been cosmetic. Such an exercise was undertaken for the January 2004 Conference to accommodate the anticipated intense level of use of the Chapel that would be generated by Conference activities. Repairs were carried out to the stairs in the main sanctuary, to the north, south and west doors, to some windows, to parts of the floor in the main sanctuary, to selected pews and kneelers, to the lighting, as well as the replacement of some fans. This work was carried out at a cost of some $145,450.00 and was but a First Phase of what was planned to be a three Phase operation. The other phases are yet to be undertaken and completed.
Notwithstanding, this fine citadel, this national historic building, this flagship not only of the people called Methodists in Antigua but also the beacon for Methodism in the wider Caribbean, requires significant structural repairs and internal retrofitting. In preparation for the 170th Anniversary celebrations of the Ebenezer Church and the 204th Leeward Island District Conference held in Antigua in 2010, there was renewed effort to further the much needed retrofitting. To this end, significant repairs and replacements were done to the pews on the mezzanine floor, significant internal painting was undertaken and completed, new fans have been installed in the sanctuary and repairs have been made to some of the pews in the main sanctuary. The work continues and much more needs to be done. To this end the enthusiasm of the indefatigable Brother Charles Bellott, a local Preacher on note, must be acknowledged for spearheading this work. The cost of this work was of the order of some $110,600.00.
Once again the matter of funding assumes appreciable proportions. While the Church recognizes its responsibility for such renovations, it recognizes the difficulty of going it alone. It therefore seems fitting on the commemoration of the 250th Anniversary to appeal to our members and friends and to all who may be so minded, to assist us in this much needed work of restoration and renovation. We ask not only for your funding, as important as that is, but also for your prayers and goodwill.
THE CHURCH’S MINISTRY
The Music Ministry
It has been said that ‘Methodism was born in song’. No account of the history of the Ebenezer Methodist Church would therefore be complete without reference to the music ministry of the Church. Specifically, the role of the Choirs is most worthy of mention.
In the earlier years there were mainly two choirs – the Junior and the Senior Choirs. The former was seen as the incubator for the latter, so that there was fluidity of movement (and promotion) from the junior to the senior choir. The Ebenezer Senior Choirs over generations were quite formidable nationally, as regards their renditions and the quality of the choral material they successfully presented. For this, credit has to be given to the very able and dedicated directors and musicians with which the Church was and continues to be blessed. Even at the danger of omissions when names are mentioned, there is not likely to be any dissension when names such as Mrs. Marjorie Branch, Rev. St. C Clarke, Mrs. Eunice Creque-Edwards as directors, and Mrs. Daisy Peters, Mr. Sydney Joseph and Quincy Etinoff as organists are mentioned.
From the earlier years, the music ministry has grown and morphed into three choirs: the Sunbeam Choir, founded by the late Rev. Donald Henry, with Mrs Valerie Henry as pianist and directed by the late Ms. Marina Evanson, for kindergartens to pre-teen; the Youth Choir, under the direction of Mrs. Louise Henry-Samon, for teens to young adults and the Senior Choir for those of more advanced ages recently under the guidance of Mr. Gordon Edwards. The Sunbeam Choir now boasts a hand bell choir and chimes department under the very able direction of Mr. Gordon Edwards. The music ministry has further grown with the birth of Immanuelle and the Recorder Group in the 1990s. Another organist, Mrs Felicity Aymer has provided musical support over the years.
The principal instrument of support to the Senior Choirs was the pipe organ. Up to 1958 the Church had a Walker pipe organ with manual bellows that had to be pumped by the Sexton during church services and mainly by the younger male choristers during choir practices. That organ was replaced in 1958 by an upgraded Walker model with electrically driven bellows, which must have been a relief to the Sextons. Some 48 years later, Ebenezer was successful in purchasing a new Rodgers Electronic organ at a cost of approximately $300,000.00 on the sole basis of private dedicated donations and fundraisers by members of its congregation. This organ was installed and dedicated to the continuing work in the music ministry of the Church in December 2006. The pastor at that time was the Rev Charles Seaton. There is now a grand piano for support and alternative accompaniment as well as for practices; and also a Steel Orchestra under the direction of Alan Michael and Gordon Edwards.
The Church Groups
From its earliest years the Church has given attention to the work of women and girls in Antigua. This was evidenced by the important roles played by the Women’s League and the Girls League, under the able leadership of Deaconesses, in the life of the Church. The Women’s League has endured the passage of time and is still active in women’s work and in augmenting the music ministry. Its present president is Ms Leola Lake. The Rangers, Girl Guides led by Teri Walters with their Brownies/Tweenies led by Sandra Matthias and the Girls’ Brigade led by Judy St John-Edwards, have adequately filled the breach left by the now defunct Girls League. Meanwhile the Boys’ Scouts led by Marilyn Yankee, and Boys’ Brigade led by Molvie Jeffery, continue to provide the right kind of training for our men of the future while the Men’s Fellowship, led by Charles Bellot continues to administer to the adult males and, like their female counterpart, augments the music ministry of the Church.
There is a fully functional Church School whose superintendent is Florentine McCoy, and a functional Youth Fellowship whose president is Chris Matthews. The Cradle Roll Secretary is Phyllis Edwards, while Brenda Phoenix leads the Liturgical Dance Group and Janice Herbert-Edwards directs the Ushers Ministry.
Three significant outreach programmes are worthy of note. The first, the After School Programme which provides an after school facility in the school room of the Chapel for assistance to students with their homework and a comfortable and learning after school environment supported by a number of retired Methodist teachers who guide students in their preparation for school and state examinations. This programme is coordinated by Lucilla Benjamin and its Board chaired by Charles Bellott. The second outreach programme is the Meals on Wheels Service that provides weekly meals to the Church’s shut in and less able members. Larry Jackson chairs the Board for this programme. The third is a Methodist Health Clinic that is run from the Church Hall/office Complex and coordinated by Matron Natalie Southwell.
Over the years the congregation has produced its share of local preachers to aid the preaching ministry of the church. We bless the souls of all those who have served and have now passed on to their reward. Still serving in this capacity are Stephanie Archibald, Llewellyn Smith, Audrey Daley, Ethelyn Parker, Larry Jackson and Charles Bellott.
The Present Leadership Team
The present pastor is the Reverend Dr Novelle C Josiah, who is also the Superintendent Minister. He is ably assisted by Congregational Stewards: Nora David (Chief Steward), Lucilla Benjamin, Erma Mathurin, Persephone Birkett, Gloria Blackman, Barbara Amory, Janice Herbert-Edwards, Beverly Samuel, Florentine McCoy, Gene Small, Wilston Edwards, Samuel Aymer and Charles Bellott. Property Stewards are Alan Michael, Foster Thomas, Phyllis Edwards and Madiana Frederick; while the Care Fund Stewards are Vincere Walsh, Ann Peters, Joycelyn Hood; with Visitation Stewards Molvie Jeffery, Madiana Frederick, Myrtle Carr and Lucille Lewis. Loeola Lake, Sarah Thomas and Lottie Thomas are the other visitation stewards.
The Standing Committees are led by: Edgar Buckley with secretary Yvette Edwards (Mission and Evangelism), Larry Jackson with secretary Susan Matthias (Organization and Education) and Samuel Aymer with secretary Charles Bellott (Resources and Development). Nora David and Avril Hector serve as secretaries for the Congregational Council and Pastoral Council respectively. We record our sincere thanks and appreciation to that faithful band of Class Leaders who have exercised nurture and care of members over these years,
An Ebenezer, let us remind ourselves, is a “stone of help” or a reminder of God’s real, Holy Presence and Divine Aid – it reminds us of God’s presence and help. Let us, like the Prophet Samuel hold up our Ebenezer and hold fast to the faith that: “Thus far has the Lord helped us” and he will not forsake us at this time. And as the hymn writer stated and we so pray: “Here I raise my Ebenezer hither by thy help (we’ve) come” … So we ask for your help in God’s name.
Finally the Church is to be congratulated on attaining this significant milestone and it is our hope that the work at Ebenezer will continue from strength to strength.