Editor’s note: Volusia County is home to dozens of churches with predominantly Black congregations. Only a limited number can claim to have stood the test of time for 100 years or more. Mass Communication students at Bethune-Cookman University visited some of these churches to find out what makes them special. This is one in a series of stories about the iconic religious institutions.
BY KAREN ROMERO DIAZ
SPECIAL TO THE DAYTONA TIMES
Stewart Memorial United Methodist Church is one of several local churches in the African-American community that have been in existence for more than a century.
The church, located at 300 N. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., will mark its 126th anniversary this year.
Church officials trace the beginnings to 1893 and the Rev. Thomas H.B. Walker. It is not known where the church held its first meeting.
Documents do show that in 1895 Stewart Chapel was built on a spot between Second Avenue (now Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune Boulevard) and Spruce Street. The Rev. M.L. Stewart donated the funds to build the chapel and the building was named in his honor.
Delay after storm
In the 1920s, the original structure was demolished and construction began on a new building. Completion of the new building was delayed by a storm in 1926, which damaged the partially finished walls, according to an African American History Trail guide published by the City of Daytona Beach.
The two-story building, finally completed in 1936, contained a sanctuary, choir room, Sunday school room, dining room, kitchen and pastor’s study.
The delay caused by the 1926 storm resulted in a basement being added to the original plans. Initially the basement provided space for church services while the building was being completed, and later it was used as a dining room.
Converted to center
Stewart Memorial moved to a new facility in 1973 and the vacated structure was sold to the city and converted into the Richard V. Moore Community Center.
Moore was president of then Bethune-Cookman College from 1947 to 1974. The center is now home to the college’s black box theater.
Subject of book
Since its beginning, more than 40 ministers have served as pastors at Stewart Memorial.
Through the years, the United Methodist Church evolved, and so did Stewart Memorial, but the basis foundation of Methodism was unshakeable, a book about the church states.
“Methodism, as perceived by John Wesley, emphasized small group worship,” according to a church history titled “The Rich Heritage of Stewart Memorial Church.”
The book, published in 2011 was written by church member Jake C. Miller, a retired professor at B-CU, and illustrated by Joel V. Fears, another longtime member. Both men have since died.
The Rev. Dr. Miriti Silas M’Woria is the current pastor of Stewart Memorial. M’Woria, a native of Kenya, was appointed pastor nine years ago. M’Woria said he received the call to the ministry from his early days in high school.
Stewart Memorial plays a big role in its community, he said, adding that its location at the corner Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune and Dr. Martin Luther King boulevards provide a lot of visibility and makes it instantly connected to the Bethune-Cookman University community.
The congregation has a strong base of older people but few students. The pastor said he would love to attract a younger public to his congregation, which now numbers about 100 people.
Services are held at 10 a.m. on Sundays.
The pastor said Stewart Memorial also has resources to help young adults pay for an education. There is a scholarship for students offered every year, where the only condition is to be a member of the congregation.
Remembering Rev. Fair
Charles Long joined Stewart Memorial more than 50 years ago and continues to play an active role. Long said religion has always play an active role in his life.
“I grew up in the church in Arcadia. I was baptized at age 11,” he said. “Church to me is the most important in my life.”
He said he first came to know Stewart Memorial by its then pastor, the Rev. Rogers P. Fair, now deceased.
“He was very lively and had an outgoing personality. Everybody was his ace,” he said, referring to Fair, who also was the chaplain at the time for then-Bethune-Cookman College.
“I have been acing here ever since,” Long said, adding that he likes the cohesion, spiritualty and uplifting spirit of the church. “It has given me stability. It has taught me a lot.”
A member’s testimony
Stewart also counts on people like Shelia Davis Jackson, who joined the church 25 years ago.
Jackson said she was raised in the Catholic faith and when she relocated here from another state, she attended the Catholic church but did not feel welcome.
“My children were very young and when I would enter the pew at the Catholic church for mass the people would move as far away as they could,” she said.
“My neighbor’s daughter and my daughter played together and she taught Sunday School to the children and youth at Stewart Memorial. She would pick my children up and I would come in time for service. I enjoyed the service, my children enjoyed being in Sunday School and thus we became members.”
Focused on youth
Jackson said she liked the fact that the members were so friendly and also very concerned about the youth in the church as well as those within the community. Stewart is home to one of the first Boys Scout troops in the AfricanAmerican community.
“To this day, we as members are still focused on our youth, our community and our relationship with Bethune-Cookman University. We welcome all students to our church for we do have a place for them,” she said.