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“A blessing”: Historic Black church in Mayfield using $100,000 donation to rebuild, expand, and save a mural

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Derek Operle
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WKMS News
St. James AME Church member Thomas Bright points to the LaFrance mural still intact in the church.

A historical Black church in Mayfield plans to use a $100,000 donation from a national nonprofit to help rebuild its house of worship, preserve a mural painted by a renowned Kentucky artist and eventually expand to better serve its community in the years ahead.

St. James African Methodist Episcopal Church Pastor Gloria Lasco and other church members were unpacking pallets of donations from a truck in the church parking lot on Martin Luther King Jr. Day when they heard about funding from the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Lasco is still trying to process the significance of it for the months ahead.

“We are the oldest African American church in that community,” Lasco said. “We’ve served our community always, open doors to anyone that needed to worship or have connection to faith. So it's a blessing, to say the least.”

St. James AME Church was founded in 1868 and built in 1923. Still intact inside the church is a mural of Jesus praying in the garden of Gethsemane, painted by the late Black artist and Graves County native Helen LaFrance. LaFrance was known for painting memories of rural, western Kentucky life.

Lasco said she’s spoken with the granddaughter of LaFrance, one of the church’s members, about the future of the concrete mural and plans for the church, wanting to expand the church’s small community center. Lasco has been with St. James AME Church since October, leading a congregation of about 25 people.

“When I'm assigned to a church, I look for two things: the bathroom and the kitchen,” Lasco said. “The church used to serve meals I know at least once a month for the community, so just the thought of being able to do that, and in a well-equipped area and seating for more people to come.”

The donation was a part of an announcement of a $20 million fund on Monday by the National Trust for Historic Preservation to help preserve, provide support and tell the stories of Black churches across the country. Paducah native Brent Leggs is the executive director of the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund at the trust, who said St. James AME Church is the first recipient from the fund.

“It's rewarding for us to see how the community of St. James AME has come together, consolidated their resources, to begin the process of planning and recovery of this historic church,” Leggs said.

Leggs also said the national nonprofit is hoping to highlight the church’s situation as an example of the impacts of climate change on historic places and cultural infrastructure. Leggs said the Kentucky Heritage Council and his nonprofit plan to provide technical expertise to the church to preserve the LaFrance mural and the building itself.

Leggs and his twin brother growing up were ushers for Macedonia Missionary Baptist Church in Paducah, and his father sang in the choir. As a teenager, his friends and family would gather in Harrison Street Missionary Baptist Church, where he remembers the minister asking for a second offering to help replace the church roof.

He said that informal work of church leaders to help preserve these community gathering places, alongside the more formal work of organizations such as his nonprofit, can help preserve and bolster these cultural landmarks for future generations.

“I have been empowered by my connection to the Black churches in Paducah, and this is a universal experience for many Americans,” Leggs said. “Because the church is at the center of community, and we all have this special connection to these historic places.”

Leggs said the contribution to St. James AME Church is just the latest of several to Black historical places in Kentucky by the nonprofit, including a $55,000 grant to Hotel Metropolitan in Paducah; a $50,000 grant to Cherokee State Park in Marshall County; a $75,000 grant to the Palmer Pharmacy building in Lexington; and a $55,000 grant to the May’s Lick Rosenwald School in Mason County.

"Liam Niemeyer is a reporter for the Ohio Valley Resource covering agriculture and infrastructure in Ohio, Kentucky and West Virginia and also serves Assistant News Director at WKMS. He has reported for public radio stations across the country from Appalachia to Alaska, most recently as a reporter for WOUB Public Media in Athens, Ohio. He is a recent alumnus of Ohio University and enjoys playing tenor saxophone in various jazz groups."
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