The Victorian town of Riverton along the Delaware River has long been a beacon for freedom of religion.
Martin Luther King Jr. visited Mt. Zion AME Church there in the 1960s, a resident donated land for a Catholic mission, the original Christ Episcopal Church was consecrated in 1860, and Calvary Presbyterian Church has helped neighbors in need since incorporation in 1874.
The remarkable story of religious tolerance in the quaint, tree-lined borough was on display in a tour of the four historic churches led by the Historical Society of Riverton earlier this month.
Officer and photographer Susan Dechnik said the society was excited for the event. Participants met at 6 p.m. in the Christ Church Parish House, 500 Fourth St., where an overview preceded the tour.
“This (was) the first walking tour of Riverton churches to focus on the historical aspect,” said Dechnik, who is helped to organize the event.
Historical society members discussed major milestones over the years at the four churches: Mount Zion AME, Calvary Presbyterian, Christ Episcopal and Sacred Heart.
Christ Episcopal’s first building, a simple frame church at Main and Broad streets, is now the site of Milanese Pizza. It was consecrated on June 6, 1860. By the end of that decade, with the realization that the Broad and Main plot was too confined for necessary expansion, vestryman William P. Ellison began to purchase land on the 300 block of Main Street, between 3rd and 4th streets, Dechnik said.
By April 1882, the parish family had so outgrown the 1860 building that a circular was issued inviting donations to support the building of a much larger structure. With $10,000 in hand by that July, Fraser was engaged to design “a suitable church building.” His edifice, built in the high Victorian Gothic style, was consecrated on July 10, 1884.
As embellished by the original Tiffany rose window and, in 1910, the Risen Christ window above the altar, Christ Episcopal remains an architectural gem to this day, Dechnik said.
Calvary Presbyterian was Riverton’s third church, following Christ Episcopal and a Roman Catholic mission. Incorporated in 1874, Calvary held its first worship services at Riverton School. The Gothic style church was dedicated in 1879, and an arts-and-crafts-style manse was added in 1913. The entire structure was set in stone by 1929, and an Austin Pipe Organ was installed in the chancel in 1959.
The church supports numerous charities in the community, according to Dechnik.
“We have had a special relationship with Urban Promise in Camden, financially supporting at least one child throughout the school year since the school’s inception 30 years ago, and most recently helping to support a $25,000 fundraiser … We give to Presbyterian Disaster Relief throughout the world, most recently to the Maui fire, and support missionaries worldwide.”
She said Emergency Services was housed at the manse for many years, and the Interface Hospitality Network has used the building to feed and house homeless people. Calvary has owned and managed a thrift shop on Main Street for more than 50 years.
“Supported by donations from the church and community, it performs a valuable service to those in need,” Dechnik noted. “Mission has always been a huge part of our work in Christ.”
Sacred Heart Church started out as a Catholic mission for Irish immigrants who came to America after the late-19th-century famine in their homeland. They were unwelcome in major cities – including Philadelphia – and met by riots.
“Riots in the mid-to-late 1800s resulted in a rising anti-Catholic sentiment,” Dechnik explained. “The immigrants in the Philadelphia area fled to a safer location on the other side of the Delaware River. Lemuel Davis, a Presbyterian by faith, generously donated the land on Fourth and Howard streets, where the first church was erected. This original church eventually became the Riverton school kindergarten.”
From 1914 to 1934, major building programs produced Sacred Heart’s first convent and school building, where the Sisters of Charity focused on children’s education. The current Sacred Heart Church at Fourth Street and Linden Avenue was dedicated in 1965 and was built in the Romanesque Revival style. Its choir loft has three stained-glass windows emphasizing the Greek word NIKA, or victory.
The school stayed open until 1976, when lower attendance, population shifts and the prohibitive costs of maintaining parochial education took their toll.
The Mount Zion AME Church was first known as the Mite Missionary Society and started as a station church supporting African American female domestic workers. It became a church in the African Methodist Episcopal connection in 1896 and meetings and services were held until 1909 in Robert’s Hall, which no longer exists, Dechnik said.
A church was constructed at Third and Penn streets at a cost of $1,500. Established in 1910, its school had Howard Washington – known as Pop Wash – as its superintendent for 55 years. But a 1931 fire resulted in the loss of all historical records and destroyed the back of the building, according to Dechnik. A new building was completed in 1931.
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. visited Mount Zion unannounced in 1962 for the funeral of a friend’s father. That friend, Dr. Clarence B. Jones, was a parishioner there active in the Civil Rights movement. The attorney’s parents met when they worked as butler and cook in the home of Edgar and Eleonora Lippincott at 806 Main St., and bought their own home at 2109 Hunter St. in east Riverton.
Jones began representing King in 1960 and served him until the Civil Rights leader died in 1968. Jones co-wrote King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered at the march on Washington in August 1963, and smuggled “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” – written by King during his imprisonment in that Alabama city – out of the prison.
According to historian Roger Prichard, at the funeral of Jones’ father, King arrived quietly and asked if he might say a few words. Standing in the pulpit above the open casket, Rev. King said, “I know my friend Brother Clarence is probably surprised that I am here. I did not know the deceased, his father, Goldsborough Benjamin Jones, but I know his son.”
Looking into the casket, King began preaching directly to Jones’ father.
“Brother Goldsborough,” he said, “you can rest and go home.” He then left as quietly as he had come in.
Rev. Dr. Leslie Robin Harrison, pastor of Mt. Zion, describes the church “as always being at the forefront of the community.
“Many trailblazing members have served as postmasters, military service personnel, domestics, blacksmiths, and builders,” he acknowledged. “Also included are renowned opera singers, musicians, educators and business owners.”
In the mid-1970s the congregation acquired the home at 208 Penn St. for a parsonage that is still in use today.
“A beacon of hope, Mt. Zion has provided for those seeking spiritual, emotional, financial, and at times physical refuge during the trying times of the Great Migration, the Great Depression, and most recently, the coronavirus pandemic,” Dechnik stated.
For information about the Riverton Historical Society’s Walking Church Tour, go to https://rivertonhistory.com/2023/08/save-the-date-4-historic-churches-wed-sept-13th-2023-600-to-830-pm/.