On Oct. 16, 40 to 50 attendees gathered in downtown Mount Vernon to honor the new state historic marker for Mount Calvary Baptist Church, a historically Black place of worship. Many of these attendees represented organizations that contributed to the documentation of this landmark.
Professor of Sociology and Legal Studies Ric Sheffield introduced the event and explained why the dedication of the marker was such an important moment for the Mount Vernon community. The church was built by four Baptist families seeking to create a place to worship with others. For decades, the church burst with life and music, especially during services, and served as a meeting place for Black residents.
The mission to acknowledge Mount Calvary’s past is not new. Sheffield, whose family attended the church, has encouraged several of his classes to do research surrounding the institution since the 90s. The Mount Calvary Baptist Church Preservation Society has been working toward this goal since 2012.
Kenyon students enrolled in the American studies course Diversity in the Heartland (AMST 391.00Y) during the 2019-20 school year contributed significantly to the effort of creating this marker. Project leaders Harper Beeland ’20, Vahni Kurra ’20 and Dante Kanter ’21 spoke eloquently of the church, the memories shared by attendees and the work they undertook: background research, interviewing former members to compile an oral history and writing the successful grant application for the state historic marker. “I’ve not been prouder of students than I am of these three,” Sheffield told the crowd.
Their prepared statements testified to the ways Mount Calvary operated as a community center. “In these interviews, we were able to experience the church as though we were there,” Kurra read. “The notes of the pianos ringing out across the pews, the smell of good cooking for church dinner, the shuffle of restless children’s feet — we learned about how Mount Calvary was a sanctuary. It was a place where Black residents could gather and support one another through hardships and triumphs. It was a place where the women cooked meals for the congregation, and the place where children came forward to be baptized. It was a church and a home.
A. Ron Lewis, chairman of the Mount Calvary Baptist Church Preservation Society, emphasized that many people had contributed to the effort in ways big and small. “I’m speechless. It’s hard for me to put into words how grateful our organization was for all the work that everybody has done here today,” he said.
Lewis, now 72, attended the church as a young man but never held a formal position. At the event, Lewis remembered his father, Andrew, and how his devotion to the church led him to shovel snow in front of the church on winter mornings, faithfully attend services as a deacon, and leave money to the church in his will. “It’s a shame that he wasn’t here to see this,” Lewis said. “That would bring tears to his eyes.”
Other speakers included Mount Vernon City Council member Julia Warga, Pastor Joe Noonen of Shepard’s House of the Nazarene, Deborah Wright of PCAAH, Jeff Ward of the Ohio History Connection and Joyce Hogan, who read letters of support and congratulations from local Baptist congregations.
In an interview with the Collegian, President Sean Decatur called the ceremony and historical marker an “important step” to acknowledging the fullness of Knox County’s history. “People of Color and of racially diverse perspectives, voices, presences, faces are not new to Knox County,” he said. “There have been communities here from the very beginning, and communities with very deep and intertwined connections to the history of Mount Vernon.”
Kenyon students in attendance expressed similar sentiments. Silvia Carias-Centeno ’25 and a few classmates enrolled in Diversity in the Heartland reported being moved and inspired by the ceremony, as well as the step that local government made in honoring the historically black place of worship.
“This marker is right here in the middle of downtown. It makes everyone acknowledge the history that was here and the work that we still have to do,” Carias-Centeno said. “Certain parts of history have been overlooked … [but] that doesn’t mean that that history is gone. It just means that we have to revive it.” As she spoke, her classmates nodded in agreement, and one admitted to tearing up during the ceremony.
Efforts to record and share Mount Calvary’s history are ongoing. Sheffield invited anyone with memories of the church to share them via a Google Form to be permanently documented. Lewis relayed that the Preservation Society hopes to apply for grants and offer walking tours of the center and renovate the building for future use.
Mount Calvary Baptist Church and the accompanying marker can be found at 13 S. Mulberry St.