Religion has been complex in Titusville since the mid-1800s. With a booming population comes many different religions, practices, and expressions of faith. One of those was the African Methodist Episcopal congregation of Titusville, established formally in 1869. However, the church itself has much deeper historical roots.
The national African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church was created in Philadelphia in the late 1700s by Richard Allen, a former slave who purchased his own freedom, Absalom Jones, and others. It was an outgrowth of the Free African Society as Pennsylvania abolished slavery in 1780. Though slavery was illegal, discrimination and segregation still very much existed. Black people were not permitted to worship in many white congregations; some were even forcibly removed while in the midst of prayer.
The founders of the AME Church wanted to be Methodists and in 1794 the first AME Church, Bethel AME, was dedicated. After a court case in 1815, the AME Church was granted the right to exist as its own institution, separate from the Methodist Church. During and after the Civil War, the AME Church spread enormously. By 1880, membership included more than 400,000 people. A few hundred of those people were right here in Titusville, Pennsylvania.
The Trinity AME Church in Titusville was organized in 1869 By Reverend Benjamin Wheeler. He served as pastor until 1872 alongside charter members Theodore Thompson, Robert R. Thompson, John Neal, Susan Thompson, Margaret Thompson, and Hannah Mackey. The church was originally on East Elm Street and was dedicated in August 1872. In 1885, the physical building was moved to what is now the area of 422 East Spruce Street under Reverend I.N. Ross.
Several prominent AME bishops found their roots in the Trinity AME Church and the church’s ministers included J.M. Morris, W.A. Phillips, A.B. Palmer, W.A. McGowan, S.T. Jones, W.S. Lowry, G.C. Sampson, J.W. Riley, and J. Bass. The church used the Methodist hymnal and the Episcopal communion set to practice their faith.
The church was kept alive in large part to the efforts of Helen Rawlins, the church organist for more than fifty years. It was said that Rawlins was a direct descendant of Richard Allen, one of the original Philadelphia founders. The church’s pipe organ was one of its crown jewels. It was built in 1865 in New York City by Levi U. Stuart and brought to Titusville for St. James Episcopal Church. In 1896 it was rebuilt and enlarged. In 1909 it was moved to Trinity AME Church as a gift of the McKinney family who purchased a new organ for St. James. The organ was noted as particularly resonant and beautiful. In 1980, it was taken to the Prince of Peace Church in South Carolina. The church was also filled with beautiful artwork painted by prominent Titusville poet Edwin Garnet Riley and preserved by his son, Garrit Riley.
Garrit Riley spoke fondly of his home church and town. He explained how the Titusville community was much friendlier to its Black neighbors than other towns. In the mid-1950s in Pittsburgh, Riley struggled to even find a place to get a drink of water due to de facto segregation and racial bias. In Titusville, it was much easier to find a place to eat and drink.
The congregation of Trinity AME Church was known around town for their fantastic oyster dinner fundraisers. The oyster dinners were held at Armour Hall on the corner of Main and Drake Streets. In its heyday, between 150 and 175 people were members of the Titusville congregation.
In the early 1900s, the church fell on hard times. The annual operating costs were $600 and with only thirty-two members, they fell $138 short of the needed amount (today, that would be just under $4,000). In 1911, a fund drive was held to help the institution get out of debt. Prominent Titusville businessmen, such as John L. McKinney, E.K. Thompson, Dr. Reuting, James Curtis McKinney, and others subscribed to the church’s subscription drive to ensure the church’s future.
The church continued to thrive into the mid-twentieth century. An annex to host dinners and events was dedicated in 1957 with Edwin Garnet Riley, then assistant minister, speaking at the ceremony. Women were among some of the church’s prominent ministers with Reverend Felicia Riley Coleman and Reverend Elizabeth Scott serving in the 1970s. Congregations from all over Northwestern Pennsylvania, including those in Oil City, Meadville, and Erie, would gather in Titusville for special events and holidays at Trinity AME.
Meadville’s Bethel AME Church still exists to this day at 961 Liberty Street. The Bethel church site was the former site of the Richard Henderson home. Henderson escaped slavery in Maryland and helped more than 500 slaves escape slavery through his home in Meadville, a part of the Underground Railroad. AME Churches were the cornerstone of life for many African Americans across the region.
After more than a century of worship, the Trinity AME Church building and parsonage were torn down in the fall of 1998. Titusville’s Black community came together in the pews of the Trinity AME Church. Though the physical manifestation of their faith is no longer with us, the memory of the Trinity AME congregation’s hard work and communion lives on.
Sources: Titusville Herald 4/11/1955, 6/5/1957, 6/19/1965, 9/18/1980, 2/5/1999; Meadville Tribune 9/2/2016, AME Church “Our History”; “The Origins of the African Methodist Episcopal Church” from National Humanities Center; Bishops of the A.M.E. Church Image from Library of Congress