Celebrating the past, cultivating the future

Mt. Zion Progressive Missionary Baptist Church celebrated 90 years of serving God with a two-day celebration. Saturday, Oct. 13 saw a picnic with food galore, and the 10 a.m. Sunday service was packed to the brim with church members and the community.

BY RAVEN JOY SHONEL, Staff Writer

PETERSBURG – Mt. Zion Progressive Missionary Baptist Church honored their 90-year history with a two-day celebration last weekend. Throughout its nine decades, the church and its spiritual leaders have both endured ups and downs, but it stands today as a testament to God’s will.

“Ninety years God has held on to us. We stand on the shoulders of some great people. God is still blessing us. He’s blessing us in spite of us,” said Rev. Louis Murphy. Sr.

In 1928, a group of community leaders met to discuss their shared ideas of ways to enhance local worship. After much prayer, the group decided to form a new church and elected its first pastor, Rev. Robert Lewis.

A search for a location of the new church led them to a small frame building in the 900 block of 20th Street South. Worship services and other church-related or supported activities continued to be held in this building under the succeeding pastors–Rev. C. Dean and Rev. J.E. Harris.

Under the guidance of Rev. C.H. Mobley, Mt. Zion expanded the original sanctuary, constructed a parsonage and purchased two adjoining lots. In 1946, he initiated construction of a new sanctuary at 948 20th St. S. This building is currently home to the Mt. Zion Children’s Center.

After serving Mt. Zion as assistant pastor, deacon, trustee, superintendent of Sunday school, choir president and church clerk, Rev. Louis Sevaris McCree, Sr. was called to pastor in 1946. He is the longest-serving pastor in the church’s history, shepherding his flock until his death in 1980.

During his leadership, Rev. McCree oversaw the completion of the sanctuary, construction of a new annex, installation of modern kitchen equipment, creation of a kindergarten, bought a van to start a transportation ministry and purchased three lots for member parking and future expansion.

Church mother Vernell Carter moved to St. Petersburg in 1959. Her husband, the late Deacon Willie C. Carter, moved here five months earlier and had already discovered Rev. McCree and the Mt. Zion family by the time she and the children arrived.

“We have always wanted to find a good church that taught the Word consistently, and we loved him and his family. They were great,” Carter said.

Rev. Wilkins Garrett, Jr., rose to the helm after McCree’s passing. In addition to sustaining Mt. Zion’s foundation of spirituality, he sought to enhance the church’s ability to meet educational, financial, affordable housing and social needs of church members and the community.

Under Rev. Garrett’s leadership, the current sanctuary, Human Services building and Family Life Center – adjacent to the sanctuary – were constructed in 1990, 1995 and 1996, respectively. Outreach missions were conducted with the Caribbean World Mission, Ethiopian Ministries, Haiti Ministries and the Virgin Islands Missions. In conjunction with several local pastors, he was a founder of the IMA Credit Union.

During Rev. Garrett’s tenure, Mt. Zion Human Services was born where 65 affordable houses were built. There was a daily feeding ministry for the hungry, alternative schooling for children expelled from school and many other cutting-edge programs and ministries.

“This building had standing room only for worship service,” said Carter. “We were taught a lot under his leadership, but the devil wasn’t happy. He was very angry, so he created some problems, and Rev. Garrett left.”

When Rev. Murphy, Sr. became senior pastor in 1999, the congregation was in disarray. Mt. Zion’s finances were a disaster–$84,000 behind in the mortgage–and most of its 2,500 members left.

“In the past 19 years, we have built our membership to over 3,000 members, incorporated ministries like the Family Touch Team Ministry, retired the $2.7 million dollar mortgage, acquired two blocks of property, purchased and renovated a church for our youth, totaling approximately $2.2 million dollars and reopened the Mt. Zion Christian Academy,” said Rev. Murphy, Sr.

He has dedicated the focus of his leadership to the realization of their vision: To effect a positive change in our community within a two-mile radius of the church and beyond.

The church has its hands in everything from the revitalization of the Manhattan Casino to Urban Development Solutions, which built Tangerine Plaza, to collaborations with the University of South Florida, St. Petersburg, St. Petersburg College and a myriad of other programs in between.

However, for the past 10 years, Rev. Murphy, Sr. has had to celebrate his triumphs without the love of his life. Filomena Murphy, Mt. Zion’s First Lady, died of cancer.

“You know how much I love my wife. Period. End of story,” he said. “I’m grateful for the time He gave us together.”

As a gift from the congregation, Timeka Walker spearheaded the building of a memorial garden and gazebo in the first lady’s name. Beatrice Morris designed the garden; Billy Boyd constructed the gazebo, and Charles Boyd built the benches. Many other hands helped make the front of the church a beautiful reflective corner to draw closer to God.

Congratulations on your 90th church anniversary from The Weekly Challenger.

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