Lavelle Berry, Dorothy Upshur and Jackie Peoples participate in the service during Saint Phillips Baptist Church’s centennial reunion cookout at Veterans Park July 22, 2018. (Photo by Suzette J. Lucas.)

In 1918, after moving to White City Park, now Hamilton Township, the Rev. James L. Philips held church services in his dining room for his wife, Florence, and their two children and their spouses.

In June 1920, the small community built Saint Phillips Baptist Church of Broad Street Park. Rev. Philips served officially as pastor for four years, then resigned, to eventually be followed two pastors later by his son, Talmadge, who served for five years and oversaw the framing of the auditorium in the church’s basement.

From that humble start grew something that has left a lasting legacy on the local black community and Hamilton Township at large. The church has provided a place for growth for a century now, and Saint Phillips is in the midst of celebrating its 1918 founding with a 12-month centennial celebration. Today the 98-percent black church has about 300 members, across all age groups, some of whom have been affiliated for almost 80 years.

The celebration started in November 2017, and each month has a different theme. On the third Sunday in January, congregants in all age brackets came to the worship service dressed as if it were 1918.

“It was a good time of reflection and thinking about differences in what we do now and what was done then,” said Joseph E. Woods, the church’s pastor.

For the church’s early members, many of whom had come north as part of the Great Migration, he says, worship was an important facet of their lives. “With all the ills of society and the challenges of being an African American in this nation, Sunday was the day you got to dress up and put on your Sunday best and feel good about yourself and your God and get encouragement from the service to face all the stuff you had to face on Monday morning,” he said.

Citing the old African proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child,” Woods says, “there should be a partnership between home, church, and community.”

As part of that ideal, the church partners with the John O. Wilson Neighborhood Service Center, where the church’s clerk, Gloria Stephens, retired June 30 after 26 years as executive director. The center offers a Head Start program for three to five year olds, a summer camp for six to 13year olds, a food pantry, hot lunches and programs for seniors, and recreational activities for all ages. The new executive director is Angelo Hall, who is also a member of Saint Phillips.

The center itself sprang from the church. On April 23, 1954, a fire razed the church. Area churches provided an immediate haven, but eventually services moved to the Rev. Millard R. Anderson’s garage, returning to the sanctuary of the rebuilt church May 22, 1955.

For a small, predominantly black congregation, taking on a massive building project as well as replacing smaller items like carpet, cushions, pews, and stained glass, required not only financial sacrifice, Woods says, but “the endurance to continue. At that stage they could have just decided, ‘Hey, it’s too much to rebuild.’”

The pastor at the time of the fire was Rev. John Otis Wilson, who became head of the church in 1932 and stayed in the position for 40 years.

Wilson’s tenure saw many successes. He purchased furniture, installed a heating system, and organized many clubs, including a young adult choir. In 1970, the Women’s Auxiliary raised enough money at their annual rally to clear the church’s debt. Saint Phillips purchased the house behind the church, which eventually hosted Hamilton’s first free daycare center and the area’s first community center. The center, known as the John O. Wilson Neighborhood Service Center, is now located at 169 Wilfred Ave.

The Rev. Hubert Roland Hunter, who became the church’s sixth pastor in 1973, increased church membership and supervised extensive renovations as well as the addition of a new wing in 1991 that holds two classrooms, four offices, a conference room, and two bathrooms. He retired in 2008 as pastor emeritus.

During the nearly two-year search for a new pastor, Deacon Alfred Carter guided the church. On May 11, 2010, the church hired Woods as its seventh pastor.