GREAT FALLS — The Union Bethel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church on the southside of Great Falls has been a centerpiece of the African American community in Central Montana for well over a century. But time and the elements have taken their toll on the structure. Through the hard work of congregation members and community stakeholders, the historic house of worship has received a much-needed grant for repairs.
Union Bethel AME began holding services in 1890. The current church was built in 1917 and thanks to the $200,000 award, it should be a part of the community for many years to come.
“There were over 550 churches in the United States that applied for the grant, and they only awarded it to 31 churches. So that's incredibly exciting,” said lifelong Union Bethel AME member Kathy Reed.
Reed says the grant from the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s African American Cultural Heritage Fund will help alleviate years of deterioration and erosion on the church’s exterior.
“This grant in particular will be used specifically to re-mortar the bricks on this church,” said Reed.
Reed says over the life of the church the mortar has started to dissolve. She says the bricks were specially made and the mortar is a special mix. She says the church is already taking the next steps to complete the contract and beginning to look for bids.
The church was already on the National Register of Historic Places and Montana historian Ken Robison said that process helped in landing the grant.
“Having a very important historic structure report done that cataloged the problems with the church and ways to improve it,” said Robison. “Those steps counted in judging the grants.”
Robison and Reed also credit historical architect Ken Sievert in helping obtain the grant. Robison adds that Sievert will supervise the project.
“With Ken Sievert supervising, it will be done right and it will be done in the community,” said Robison.
Reed says the thing that makes Union Bethel stand out is its sense of family.
“My parents were originally from Alabama and came here with my dad playing baseball, but my siblings and I were all born here,” said Reed. “And so even though our extended family, our grandparents and cousins were far away, we always had a sense of family here because the members here were our family. They were the ones we looked at as aunts and uncles and grandmas and grandpas.”
Soon, the church hopes to return to in person services, which have been on hold as a result of water damage issues during the pandemic.
When Robison, who is also an honorary Union Bethel member, began a career as a historian, he felt Black History in Montana seemed neglected. Researching places like the Ozark Club and Union Bethel Church affirmed there is much more to the story.
“Union Bethel is the heart and soul of this black community,” said Robison. “In the days when African Americans were restricted to the Lower South Side, and it came through for them and they were loyal members.”
Reed says the church has always been a safe and welcoming place for worship, especially during times of segregation. And for an entire community, it means so much more.
“Like many other churches across the United States, it has been a place for politics, a place to come and work on civil rights,” said Reed. “It's open to all people, even though our roots are African American, we welcome everyone.”