Allen Chapel
Congregation, church have helped shape Wabash Valley history.
By Patricia L. Pastore

For 92 years, parishioners have trod the wooden floors of Allen Chapel church, prayed from its balcony pews or below, saw the glimmer of sunrays around its stained-glass.

The beauty and reverence of the church at Third and Crawford streets seems to inspire that type of devotion. The present-day church, officially the Allen Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church, was built in 1913. The congregation predates it. It formed in 1837 and they first met in a small, white frame house west of the present facility.

"The first church was a major stop on the Underground Railroad," said Bettie Davis, 84, a Terre Haute native and longtime member of Allen Chapel. She said a tunnel under the little white church to the bank of the Wabash River served as a secret passage for many blacks making their way to Canada.

The current building resounds with the voices of friends and relatives of the Forte family, who boast six generations of church membership at Allen Chapel.

Thelma Forte Benton and her sister Theola Forte, both in their 80s, were brought to this church by their mother before they learned to walk, Benton said.

"Hiram Rhoads Revel opened up a school for black children in the basement of Allen Chapel," she said. "Black children weren't allowed to have a school in Terre Haute and they couldn't attend school with white children."

The school was so highly regarded that people relocated to Terre Haute so their children could attend, Forte said. She said parents paid 25 cents per week per child for this education.

Her stepfather, John Baley, received his education at Allen Chapel, she said.
Allen Chapel AME remained the center of the black community for decades, said Joy Sacopulos, president of the Friends of Allen Chapel, a preservation organization.

Frederick Douglass, abolitionist, human rights and women's rights activist, came to Terre Haute twice in the mid-19th century to help raise money to build Allen Chapel, she said.

Members of Allen Chapel's first congregation were freed slaves brought to Vigo County by Quakers, Davis said.

Allen Chapel's congregation today is a small group of people with many ethnic backgrounds.

"Everyone is welcome to worship at Allen Chapel," Sacopulos said. "We continue to follow Douglass' legacy of diversity. Douglass in his day was the Martin Luther King Jr. of that century. He envisioned America as an inclusive nation strengthened by diversity and freedom from discrimination. Allen Chapel keeps his vision alive for all people of all times."

Allen Chapel continues to influence its members as it did 168 years ago.

"The church has a legacy of pride, a sense of right and wrong and a sense of direction that still influences the members of Allen Chapel," Sacopulos said. "This church is special to the entire community. It's a part of the fabric of Terre Haute."
 

 Tribune-Star/Joseph C. Garza

First in the Valley: Allen Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church at 218 Crawford St. was a station on the Underground Railroad and served as the first educational facility for black people in Terre Haute.

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ALLEN CHAPEL FAST FACTS
-- Allen Chapel AME Church is named for Richard Allen, a slave born in Philadelphia in 1760. He founded the African Methodist Episcopal Church, which started in Philadelphia in 1787.

-- The AME Church was the answer to Americans whose forefathers came from Africa and sought social recognition as human beings.

-- The church offered classes in reading and writing when blacks were admitted to public schools.

-- Allen, a slave of Benjamin Chew of Philadelphia, bought his freedom for $2,000 and converted to Christianity.
-- Allen was the first bishop of this new denomination.

-- The Allen Chapel congregation was organized in 1837 to establish a diverse church where everyone was welcome to worship.

-- Allen Chapel AME Church has been the center of life for many blacks in the Wabash Valley since the 1800s. Prominent Americans who have spoken to the congregation include Frederick Douglass, Eugene V. Debs and Jackie Robinson.