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Union Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church
Photo by Ellen Sievert, courtesy of the Great Falls/Cascade County Historic Preservation Advisory Commission

Union Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church:
Great Falls, Montana

The Union Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME) in Great Falls, Montana, is one of the first-built and longest-used churches for African Americans in Montana and is important because it represents trends in black community growth in the western United States. The church played an integral role in the historical development of the Great Falls' black community, and has remained active since its founding in a state whose relative African American population has decreased. Following emancipation and the end of the Civil War, a growing number of freedmen and women and freeborn African Americans joined the national migration west. African Americans organized for mutual benefit swifter than other arriving settlers in the Pacific Northwest; and this usually began with the construction of an African Methodist Episcopal or Baptist Church.

Tower of Union Bethel AME Church
Photo by Ellen Sievert, courtesy of the Great Falls/Cascade County Historic Preservation Advisory Commission
Paris Gibson had the Great Falls townsite laid out in late 1883, and construction of the town began the following spring. Great Falls grew slowly until the arrival of the railroad in 1887-8, and a small black community emerged in the late 1880s. In 1890 the Great Falls AME church organized as a congregation and began meeting in the city's first fire station on 2nd Avenue South. The next year, Paris Gibson, for the Great Falls Water Power and Townsite Company, sold the lot on which the current AME church stands to Ed Simms, William Morgan and A.W. Raym, trustees of the Great Falls AME. The original one-story wood frame building was built in 1891 with a parsonage adjoining the south side of the building. The Rev. Joel Childress led the drive to raise money for the original church. The new church became an active part of the AME structures in Montana and the regional AME organization, and held the statewide AME conference in 1908. However, by 1916 the original wooden church was falling down, and between September 1915 and April 1917, two successive pastors appealed to the Great Falls public for financial assistance toward building a new church. With help from the larger Great Falls community, the church raised the money needed to build the existing church. While the architect for the 1917 Union Bethel AME Church is unknown, the church is a good representation of local Gothic Revival interpretation, with its characteristic focus on vertical, narrow, and pointed elements, and a typical size and structure for churches built in Montana during the early 20th century. The ecclesiastic home for the Union Bethel AME congregation is a tall, one-story rectangular, wooden structure with brick veneer that is sheltered by a steep gable roof.

Interior of Union Bethel AME Church
Photo by Ellen Sievert, courtesy of the Great Falls/Cascade County Historic Preservation Advisory Commission

True to its roots, Union Bethel served diverse social and civil purposes--the Church provided a forum in which African Americans and white Great Falls residents could mix socially in what was generally a restrictive social environment. The women of Union Bethel formed organizations to benefit the church and the community, including a Ladies' Aid society and a missionary group. Later some of the women in the Church formed the Dunbar Art and Study Club, which promoted literacy and did much to promote civil rights. It was in the 1950s, however, that the church reached a turning point in its traditional membership when the assignment of black airmen to East Base/Malmstrom Air Force Base brought in new black residents, some of whom stayed in Great Falls after leaving the military. Then, in the 1960s and 1970s thousands of employees lost jobs in smelting and rail repair, two mainstays of the Great Falls and local African American economy, and from 1973-86 the church lacked a resident minister and operated with lay membership from dedicated members. In the 1990s, the AME Fifth Episcopal District Bishop appointed Rev. Robert Payne, an ordained Air Force officer from Malmstrom Air Force Base, to the ministry at Union Bethel. Union Bethel is the largest of the three AME congregations in Montana.

"This listing is the first completed using grant funds from the Land Title Association Foundation, and has been a resounding success," says Kate Hampton, National Register Program Historian with the State Historic Preservation Office. "The nomination process resulted in excellent research and documentation of not only this significant building, but also many important aspects of the history of African-American communities in Montana." Today, the congregation is flourishing under its new leadership with a multi-racial mix of Air Force personnel and a small but influential group of long-term members and their extended families. The Union Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church was listed in the National Register of Historic Places on September 11, 2003. As a result of the publicity of this recognition, several Montana businesses and organizations have come forward offering supplies and services to help restore and stabilize the building, including structural engineers, historic architects, building supply companies and contractors. In addition, attendance and membership at the church has been increasing.

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