Shiloh Baptist Church celebrates 125th anniversary

New London — Bishop Benjamin Watts took some time, while asking the congregation for donations during Sunday's service, to reflect on the history of the building that now houses the Shiloh Baptist Church.

"A place that used to incarcerate now every day helps to liberate," he said about the former jail.

In the midst of a marathon two-hour-and-15-minute service celebrating the 125th anniversary of Shiloh, a historically black institution, Watts explained that the church was once a jail.

During the Rev. Albert Garvin's tenure as the church's pastor in the late 1950s, the church grew too big for its former building. According to its website, Shiloh offered $6,000 for the former jail property — other bidders withdrew their higher bids out of respect for Garvin — and bought the building that people still worship in today in 1958. The new Shiloh, which opened after renovations in 1962, now sits on Garvin Street, which is named after the late pastor.

Senior Deacon Earl Wilson Sr. and Watts said Sunday that church members knocked down walls and opened up the cellblock to create the sanctuary. They said there are still rooms once used for solitary confinement in the basement.

That's not the only way Shiloh has grown. After starting with services in individual homes, it now boasts a membership of about 1,000 people.

Sunday's service was joyful.

Two television monitors between three stained glass murals broadcast the musical and oratorical performances of clergy, choir and band members. Five girls put on an elaborate song and lip sync routine. Churchgoers shouted or murmured "yes" and "OK" and "all right" in response to the Rev. Jackie Williams' sermon. When the choir sang, the congregation sang along, as the lyrics were displayed on screen. Many parishioners stood with outstretched arms whenever the band and choir came together to play.

At times, Williams' and Watts' message was punctuated by a refrain from the choir, as was the case during their singing of "God's Got My Back."

Wilson introduced two guests early in the service — Mayor Michael Passero and Chris Soto, who serves as Gov. Ned Lamont's legislative affairs director — both of whom offered proclamations of support and congratulations to the church.

Soto, speaking on behalf of the governor, said Lamont recognizes the importance of Shiloh and its essential roles in the community. Soto called it "one stop shop" for spiritual healing, education, community work and other services. Lamont's proclamation conveyed honor and recognition upon the church.

Passero pointed out Shiloh's political prominence, naming the late Eunice Waller, a teacher and former mayor, as an example of the quality and impact of Shiloh's congregation.

"Shiloh's been an important driver for this community," Passero told The Day. "It's given us our greatest political leaders, and it's shaped the character of New London."

Shiloh was founded in 1894 and incorporated in 1900. Chairman of the Deacon Board John Medina said Sunday that no one realized it was the church's 125th anniversary until Watts brought the founding date to people's attention.

"Bishop tapped into it and says, 'You guys are celebrating 119, but it's 125,'" Medina said. "So we had to take it up a notch."

In addition to the special service, the church held a brunch during which a video about the church's pastors and history was shown. 

Deaconess Phyllis Wiggins, 78, has been attending the church since she was 4. She was married to her husband by Garvin, who was the pastor from 1937 to 1965. She said faith is the reason Shiloh has lasted, and she listed off all the church does for the city and surrounding communities

"We go down to feed the homeless, we do fellowship with other churches around here, we do the clothing drive and we're involved in the Martin Luther King celebrations," Wiggins said.

Shiloh has an annual and well-attended Martin Luther King Jr. Day march and service.

Wilson, who has been at the church for almost 58 years and was also married to his wife by Garvin, said Watts's forward thinking has transformed the church and allowed it to thrive in the 21st century.

"When Reverend came 34 years ago, he was like a blessing, because before he got here, the traditional way was working, but it wasn't to this level," Wilson said. "When he came, he changed a lot of things. And change was very difficult for some of our elders, including me. But change is good. We started to grow. Members started coming back."

Soto noted Shiloh's work with the homeless and its annual Community Prison Awareness and Prevention Gathering as reasons why the church has stood as a city bedrock for more than a century.

Williams during his sermon best summarized Shiloh's continued influence, and spoke to why people had come from throughout Connecticut and the country to attend Sunday's proceedings.

"As I begin to look at these 125 years, we are no longer strangers, we are part of a citizenship," Williams said. "This is not a membership church, this is a relationship church. We're a family."

s.spinella@theday.com

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