The Development of the Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Institutional Church
In April 1880, the Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church was organized by the Reverend C.J. Scott, who came to Orlando from Monticello, Florida. Reverend Scott built a “bush arbor” for Mount Zion on the corner of Robinson Avenue and the east side of North Division Street, and a weekly program of Christian services and worship was established. (Some church documents suggest that the original location of the church was on the corner of Robinson and Chatham Streets where the parsonage was located for many years.) Reverend Scott resigned following a period of a six year pastorate, leaving the church well established.
Reverend G.W. Jones was called to the pastorate of the church in 1886. Following his passing, Rev. J.W. Stokes was called to the church, and he pastored for 13 years.
Reverend H.K. Hill succeeded Reverend Stokes in 1910. It was during his administration that the original Mt. Zion moved to the corner of Washington and Chatham Streets. Mr. Gabriel Jones, father of the late Sister Eunice Jones, donated the property. (Today the “Jones Town” Condominiums at the corner of Washington and Terry Streets are housed on the property of the late Sister Jones.)
In 1911, under the pastorate of Rev. H.K. Hill, a skilled contractor, Mr. James T. Murrell, was brought to the Orlando area from Gainesville, Florida, to build the church parsonage on the corner of Robinson and Chatham Streets. The winding staircase was one of the outstanding features of the two story frame house. Impressed with the work of Mr. Murrell, in 1912 the Church Officers, under the direction of Reverend H.K. Hill, engaged him to construct and remodel the smaller church located at Washington and Chatham Streets, into a larger one which was the original site. Mr. Murrell was the father of Mrs. Mattie L. Starke, who served as one of the Church Organists for many years.
Reverend Hill and Mrs. Hill worked in partnership and brought to the Orlando community such activities as Women’s Day and Boys and Girls Scouting. They also created singing groups that placed high in state singing conventions. Mrs. Viola T. Hill served many years in the State and National Baptist Conventions, and helped establish Mount Zion as one of the leading churches in the convention.
On April 24, 1928, two lots were purchased from Mr. Arthur Lismore on Robinson Avenue. On May 8, 1928, $900 was appropriated for laying the foundation of a new church building on the corner of Robinson Avenue and Parramore Street. On May 31, 1928, grade was set and excavation started for the new church building by the City of Orlando. Mr. Julius Bishop and Mr. Quash Thompson dug the first ditch. Mr. Sino Wilson and Mr. William Armstead set stakes. Mrs. Quash Thompson, Mr. Charlie Mack, and Mr. N.F. Bishop dug the second ditch. Unfortunately, the dream of a new church building on this site never materialized.
Pastor Hill served Mount Zion, the State and National Conventions diligently and conscientiously (First Vice President of the National BYPU and Sunday School Congress) for 19 years until his passing, September 9, 1929.
The Rev. P.J. Gethers was accorded pastoral powers on October 31, 1929, until the Church saw fit to call a permanent pastor or make a change.
On April 18, 1930, the Reverend R.L. Jones succeeded Rev. Gethers. It was under his administration that the Department of Religious Education was established, and on December 31, 1930, Sister Mattie L. Rigell was elected Supervisor of Religious Education. On January 28, 1941, Sister L. Claudia Allen was elected to this position. Reverend Jones served as pastor until the end of 1940.
On January 21, 1941, Reverend Moses Crooms, Jr. was elected as Supply Pastor, and he willingly served until the church called Reverend A.M. Means on April 29, 1941. During Reverend Mean’s administration, three rooms were added to the old church. Reverend Means resigned on June 28, 1945.
The last six months of the year, the church was without a leader. Pastor Crooms, Moderator of the West Coast Association, acted as Supply Pastor. It was during the time on December 16, 1945, that a fire badly damaged the interior of the church building. Mr. Banks, an active member of the church and also the Principal of Jones High School allowed the fellowship to hold services in the school’s auditorium while repairs were being conducted.
On May 5, 1946, by unanimous vote, the Reverend N.G. Staggers was called to the pastorate of Mount Zion as permanent pastor. Reverend Staggers took up full pastoral duties of the church on August 12, 1946.
During Rev. Staggers’ long and distinguished pastorate, many wonderful things happened at Mount Zion, including:
- A church office was established at the parsonage in October 1952, with a full-time secretary.
- Mount Zion became an incorporated body on July 3, 1953.
- A spiritual and financial program on the basis of stewardship and tithing was established.
- A Junior Deacon Board was added.
- Youth Day was established.
- Circle Districts were expanded to eight.
- A membership training class was begun.
- A Deacon’s training class was begun.
- Many committees were formed, including Church Worker’s Council and Transportation.
The Incorporation of the church led to its present operational structure with spiritual leadership of the pastor being supported by a Board of Deacons and a Board of Trustees. It was during this period of time under Pastor Staggers’ leadership that Deacon James Bates became Chairman of the Deacon Board, and Deacon Booker T. Helms became Chairman of the Trustee Board. This was the triumvirate of leadership in 1955 that led to the most aggressive project of any Black Church in Central Florida’s history. The building of a structure valued at that time, $250,000.00.
In 1955, at the recommendation of Reverend Staggers, the church elected Deacon Booker T. Helms who owned and operated Helm’s Concrete and Paving Company, as Chairman of Mount Zion’s Building Committee. On January 29, 1956, Mount Zion had its Ground Breaking Service and on February 13, 1956, and the foundation was laid for the new edifice on the northwest corner of Chatham and Washington Streets, opposite what was then the “old frame church.” In April 1961, the floors were completed but due to limited finances, construction was briefly stopped. It was Trustee Helms’ connection to the building community that enabled him to persuade Mr. Eugene Kelsey, a notable contractor, to partner with Mount Zion. Through this partnership the building project of seven years was finally realized on March 18, 1962, when the first church service was held. Members gave God the glory for their years of contributing to the building project the tithes from the small salaries that were typical of the time and for the hands on labor that many engaged in every Saturday as the building site. The church was valued at $250.000.00, which as quite an achievement for an African American congregation in the 1960’s.
On May 27, 1962, the “Dedication Services” were held in the new edifice, conducted by Reverend Nathaniel Green Staggers and Reverend H. Leon Lowry. Deacon Helms’ daughter Catherine Helms Fleming, a graduate of Boston Conservatory of Music sang, “Bless this House.” Trustee Helms also served in the roles of Deacon, Superintendent of Sunday School, and Chairman of the Trustee Board. He served in these capacities until his passing in 1965. After being personally recruited by Reverend Staggers, the church elected Wilbur S. Gary, Sr., Chairman of the Board of Trustees, the youngest chairman ever elected. For many years he oversaw the church’s fiduciary responsibilities in an excellent manner.
Also, under the leadership of Reverend Staggers, the most active Missions Department to date was instituted. During Sister Carrie Henley’s tenure as Chairperson of the Missions Department, $1000 was raised through filled Gleaners and contributions to pay for a church in Africa, which was also to be named Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church. The original cost was to be $500.00 but was increased to $1000. The church was finally built, but to date, no additional information about it has been received.
During Reverend Staggers’ tenure, Mt. Zion was the first church to go outside of the walls of the church and become actively involved in the community and the political arena to join the civil rights cause. In the 1960’s, Reverend Staggers was an active member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and inspired many members to join, (Sister Bernice Wheeler served on the Executive Board and held the position of Executive Secretary, and Sister Georgia N. Woodley once served as the local Vice-President.) In the early 1960’s when the local branch of NAACP filed a desegregation lawsuit against Orange County Schools, all of the plaintiffs came from the Mt. Zion congregation: Brother J.P. Ellis, Sisters Georgia N. Woodley, Altamese Pritchett., Mavis Starkes, and Marie Curry.
Reverend Staggers served Mt. Zion faithfully for 24 years. Many sons were born into the ministry through him: Reverend A.F. Smart, Reverend J.C. Wyche. Rev. G.W. Helms, Reverend Noels Pete, Reverend Harley White, Reverend Early Wade, Reverend C.W. Wade and Reverend Fred Maxwell, just to name a few. On December 31, 1970, after a prolonged illness, Pastor resigned. The church honored his many years of excellent service by conferring on him the title “Pastor Emeritus.”
Rev. Herman Brandon served the Mount Zion family as an interim pastor from January to October 1971.
In November 1971, the Reverend J.D. Ellis, Sr. began his tenure at Mount Zion. In 1972, the Department of Religious Education was reorganized and the name was changed to the Board of Christian Education. Sister L. Claudia Allen, who had been serving in that capacity since 1941, continued to serve in the capacity until her passing in 1975. Sister Leala R. Collins who had been serving as Sister Allen’s assistant since the late 1970’s was elected to serve as Chairperson of the Board. She continued to serve until 2001 when she elected to change positions with her Co-Chair, Sister Alice Morgan Grant, who currently serves in the role of Chairperson of Christian Education Ministries. In 2013, Sister Collins passed away after faithfully serving for over 25 years.
In 1974, the church recognized two faithful servants, Deacon James Bates who had served as a deacon in Mount Zion from June 11, 1930 to July 12, 1973. In recognition of those faithful 35 years of service, the church conferred on him the honorary title of “Chairman Emeritus”. Also during 1974, the church honored Sister G.N. Woodley, who at that time had served in the role of Church Secretary for 21 years.
In October 1976, the church was without a pastor. In October 1977, the Joint Board of Officers requested the Reverend Earl Nobles to carry on Sunday Worship Service. He provided these services in an outstanding manner for eleven months. Briefly between December 1977 and June 1978, Reverend Young Glover assisted in the services at Mount Zion.
In November of 1978, the church elected Reverend Henry Marion Steele as pastor. His accomplishments were notable. Approximately 120 members joined between November 1978 and our 100th year celebration was held in April 1980. Pastor Steele organized a Mass Choir (composed of choir members from each choir), consolidated Choir Number One and the Gospel Choir to become the Chancel Choir, increased the membership of the Junior and Youth Choirs along with the Junior and Youth Usher Board. He organized the American Baptist Youth Fellowship including approximately fifty or more members, was responsible for several of our high school students being included in the Society of Distinguished American High School Students.
In 1981, dual alignment with the National Baptist Convention, Inc. and the American Baptist Churches, USA, Inc. provided access to new educational ministries and mission work (Home and Foreign). This alignment provided Mount Zion with complete retirement, dental and medical programs for the entire church staff, and annual finances exceeded $100,000.00.
On April 20, 1980, another milestone was reached, that of being the oldest and largest Black Baptist Church in Central Florida.
Under Pastor Steele’s leadership, he gave Mount Zion the motto: “Mount Zion is the Church Where Everybody is Somebody and Christ is Supreme.”
Reverend Steele departed Mount Zion in 1981. This ended the first of two tenures for Reverend Steele. In 1982, the Reverend Arthur D. Sims, Sr. was called to the pastorate of Mt. Zion.
During Reverend Sims’ tenure, the following ministries were established or reactivated: the Radio Ministry, Junior Deacons, Congress of Christian Education, Brotherhood and Sisterhood, Children’s Church, Scholastic Honors and Awards program, Youth and Adult Ushers, Single Adult Ministry. Also, he instituted a Church Newsletter, implemented Voter Registration, formed the Angelic Choir and added the McKnight Center of Excellence to the tutoring program.
During Pastor Sim’s ministry, Mount Zion was beginning to see the growth of other churches and ministers who were once a part of the church family. Reverend Earl Nobles established the Pine Hills Community Church, and Reverend Erwin McWilson organized King’s Way Baptist Church.
Reverend Sims served at Mount Zion until his resignation on February 19, 1990. Upon his departure, he organized and founded the Fellowship Baptist Church.
Being strong and continuing in faith in God, Mount Zion turned to Reverend Henry Peoples, an Associate Minister and charged him with the responsibility along with other visiting ministers to carry out the worship services of Mount Zion until a permanent leader could be called.
In 1992, Reverend Henry Marion Steele was called back as pastor of Mount Zion. He preached his first returning sermon at the Watch Night Service on December 31, 1992. After returning to Mount Zion, Reverend Steele created the positions of Associate Minister to Youth, Associate Minister of Education, Associate Minister of Evangelism and Associate Minister of Missions, Administrative Assistant, Membership Secretary and Minister of Music. On March 21, 1996, Associate Minister, Terry Bowser, and friend in the ministry Calixte Francois, were ordained. All choirs were renamed. Five deacons were ordained. Approximately 200 new members joined the church. In addition, the following improvements were implemented: new carpet in the sanctuary, narthex and stairways, new drapes for the Baptistry, blinds for rooms on the main floor, new computer system, FAX machine, Merlin phone system, new van, paving of the church’s parking lots, and on February, 1997, the adjacent properties were donated to the church by its owner, Mrs. Mary Truett. Sister Mattie Starke donated an organ to be used in the lower church’s Fellowship Hall.
In 1993, Mount Zion honored Sister Georgia Nell Woodley for 40 years of outstanding and dedicated service as the first full-time secretary of the church. On December 31st of that year, Sister Woodley retired after having served Mount Zion for 45 years. The church recognized her years of faithful service on January 25, 1998, during the morning worship service and proclaimed the day “Georgia Nell Woodley Day.”
Also under the leadership of Reverend Steele, Mount Zion became a part of the Orlando Area Inter-Faith Sponsoring Committee (OASIC) with our own Local Organizing Committee (LDC) for development of leaders to effect change in the community.
During the interim between the end of the pastorate of Reverend Steele and the arrival of our new pastor Reverend Errol G. Thompson, Sr., the Mount Zion family remained steadfast and strong. The purchase of an administrative office adjacent to the church was initiated and paid in full. During the interim of over two years, the Rev. Eddie Williamson, Associate Minister, carried out the roles and responsibilities of preaching, teaching, and ministering in every way to the church family with a capable, steady and loving hand. Reverend Ronald Sutton, Reverend Terry Bowser, and other ministers assisted him.
In July 2000, Mount Zion welcomed Rev. Errol G. Thompson. His installation took place on September 17, 2000. During his tenure, he promoted Mount Zion as a spiritual and political leader in the community. He established several ministries, including Youth Bible Study, Sheepfold Ministry, the reopening of the church nursery, the Kingdom Guards and the Radio Ministry. He established a Church website. The church family continued to increase in membership under his leadership, and he continued to emphasize teaching and the evangelistic mission of the church.
Reverend Thompson held membership in the West Coast Baptist Association and served as President of the Congress of Christian Education.
When Reverend Thompson asked God for his will for Mount Zion, he revealed the following vision to him:
- To build up the faith of the people
- To build up the family of the people
- To build up the fellowship
- To build up the finances of the church
In 2007 under the tenure of Reverend Thompson, the Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Institutional Church was designated as an Orlando Historic Landmark by the Historic Preservation Board of the City of Orlando. Trustee Lorenzo Ford and Sister Lula Ford were recognized as Church Historic Preservation Honorees for their ongoing labor and research which led to the recognition Mr. Zion received.
Reverend Thompson served Mt. Zion until his resignation in January 2010. Upon his departure, he organized and founded the New Life Fellowship Baptist Church.
Associate Ministers Rev. Dr. Eddie Williamson, Minister Carolyn Green and Rev. Terry Bowser ministered to the congregation during the interim.
On December 12, 2010, Reverend Dr. Robert M. Spooney, our current pastor was called to serve as the Interim Pastor. In January 2012, he was called as Senior Pastor and assumed full pastoral responsibilities. He was installed as Senior Pastor on April 25, 2012. Some of the achievements to which he has given leadership include:
A full range of weekday and Sunday services including a vibrant Wednesday evening prayer meeting and Bible study, ministry through preaching, teaching, baby blessings, baptism, communion service, funerals, counseling, visits to sick and shut-in and performance of weddings. Nearly 200 members have been added to the church family.
Support for ministry included Associate Ministers: Reverend Dr. Eddie Williams, Minister Carolyn Green, the late Rev. Terry Bowser, Reverend Oliver Jones, and Evangelist Ann Jones. In 2012, three new Deacons were trained and ordained. Additional Deacons are currently in training. In 2011 and 2013, a total of ten new Deaconess were trained and dedicated along with two previously experienced Deaconess. Two long time Deacons, Deacons Willie Campbell and Ernest White, now Emeritus, were honored by the church for their decades of spiritual leadership, being faithful servants of God, active in the ministries of this church and in the community.
In the area of Christian Education, increased denominational involvement in West Coast Baptist, Florida General Baptist and ABCOT has included a higher level of attendance of members and Pastor’s involvement in preaching, teaching and committee assignments. Pastor Spooney is currently President of the West Coast Congress of Christian Education. Within the past two years, Mt. Zion hosted the Florida General Baptist pre-convention Evangelistic Crusade and evangelistic outreach, the Annual Session of the West Coast Baptist Association, the Annual Session of the West Coast Baptist Association Congress of Christian Education and the ABCOTS Area IV meeting.
In 2011 and 2013, under the direction of Pastor Spooney, Mt. Zion applied and received a $9000 “Eat Smart” grant for addressing obesity and teaching healthy eating habits and exercise to families in the church and the Callahan community.
Support for ministry through praise and worship included the addition of a Minister of Music to the music staff, the Jewels of Judah liturgical dance ministry being declared an outreach ministry.
Continuation of outreach to the community through participation in Fresh Start, Saturday clothing ministry, food ministry, evangelistic ministry, being a site for the ACCESS program, annual blood drive, additional efforts such as support for overcoming substance abuse program. Mission ministry, both home and foreign, was re-established with involvement including participation in ABCOTS White Cross project, (600 bandages made and shipped last year), participation in the Florida General Baptist Convention’s Haiti relief project and financial support for Missionary Everett’s work with children and youth in Uganda. Mt. Zion’s Men’s Ministry was established and lends support to outreach programs such as food and clothing ministries. The Golden Years Ministry continues to flourish.
Improvement to the physical structure includes the complete renovation of the upstairs and downstairs women’s and men’s rooms. Several projects being planned for the future include updating and restoring windows in the sanctuary and throughout the church, other improvements to the physical plant, advanced use of technology including electronic bulletin boards, and purchase of a mini-bus.
In January 2015, Mount Zion was one of the sponsoring partners and the host of the Ceremony honoring Bessie Coleman who was the first licensed African-American Pilot. Florida Senator, the honorable Geraldine Thompson, had sponsored legislation which resulted in the designation by the 2014 State Legislature of portions of West Washington Street as Bessie Coleman Street and the designation of a Bessie Coleman Day in Florida. The famed Aviator was part of Mt. Zion’s history. In 1926 during a speaking tour through Florida, she met and became friends with then Pastor, Rev. H. K. Hill and Mrs. Hill. For a time she lived with them in the parsonage and became part of the Mount Zion family. In April 2015 Mount Zion was selected by the Orlando Alumnae Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc., to receive the 2015 Community Partnership Recognition Award as a result of significant contributions, work and dedication in the community. The church was also designated in February 2015 as a “Second Sabbath/Second Sunday Congregation” by the Negro Spiritual Foundation, an organization dedicated to the preservation of Negro Spiritual Heritage.
The history of Mt. Zion is filled with many names, faces, dates and includes Pastors, Associate Pastors, Deacons, Trustees, Deaconess, missionaries, and all members who served God. They have all served Mt. Zion in a variety of roles, the pastors and ten to twelve churches to which Mt. Zion gave birth. Fifteen pastors, five different structures, many supply pastors. Across the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and into the twenty-first century, the Mount, located in the near downtown area of the city, has continued in ministry giving glory to God and ministering to his people and all who need. The legacy begun by Pastor C.J. Scott and eight courageous and believing families continues as we pursue the goal of “Transforming the past through God’s Will and Word into a spiritually healthy, positive and productive future”, as envisioned by our current pastor Rev. Dr. Robert M. Spooney.