Historic Grand Junction chapel due for improvements after listing

Left to right: The Rev. Silas Wright, a traveling African Methodist Episcopal Church minister for Handy Chapel, next to him is Miss Oreta Tasker. The woman standing on the sidewalk with the white dress and hat on is Josephine Dickey’s grandmother, Lizzie Austin Taylor. This picture was taken around 1899. Photo from the Josephine Dickey collection.

Grand Junction’s Handy Chapel is due for some improvements by HistoriCorps in 2011.

HistoriCorps is a preservation initiative modeled after community service programs such as the Civilian Conservation Corps and Americorps. The chapel, which primarily serves some of Mesa County’s black community, was placed on Colorado’s 2011 Most Endangered Places List by Colorado Preservation Inc. during the Saving Places luncheon Thursday in Denver.

Colorado Preservation Inc. is a nonprofit organization founded in 1985 by several citizens interested in preserving Colorado’s heritage. This conference has grown to be the largest statewide gathering of preservationists in the nation.

Patrick Eidman, Endangered Places program manager for Colorado Preservation Inc. said Thursday about the award: “I am incredibly excited to have the opportunity to work with the congregation of Handy Chapel and the community of Grand Junction on the preservation and restoration of Handy Chapel. The chapel is significant as a historic resource, but even more it stands as physical evidence to the struggles and joys and faith of African-Americans in Grand Junction. The mission of the Endangered Places Program is to raise awareness for and with the preservation and protection of important places in Colorado, and I am so pleased that the Handy Chapel was selected from more than 40 nominations to be included on the 2011 list of Colorado’s Most Endangered Places.”

The church at 202 White Ave. remains today as the only original church building still standing in Grand Junction. It was built on lots in the original square mile deeded to local blacks by Grand Junction founder George Crawford for $1 on March 24, 1883, according to longtime Grand Junction resident and church member, Josephine Dickey.

William Austin, Josephine’s great-grandfather, along with other blacks in the community, carried the bricks, mortar and other building materials for Hunt & McDonald, contractors for the church. The church was completed in 1892. During the nine years it took to complete the church, from 1883 to 1892, the members of Handy Chapel held church services on their four vacant lots.

For several years services were conducted by traveling ministers from the African Methodist Episcopal church.

That changed when Austin’s daughter, Lizzie, returned to Grand Junction, after becoming an ordained minister while living in Salt Lake City. There, Lizzie’s husband, William Wesley Taylor, was owner-publisher of the Utah Plain Dealer, the only black newspaper in Utah. After her husband’s death in 1907, Lizzie returned to Grand Junction, where she ministered at Handy Chapel.

Dickey’s uncle, Booker Taylor, was also a minister at Handy Chapel for many years. Booker was a certified teacher, but he couldn’t teach in Grand Junction because the school district would not hire a black person to teach white children.

Handy Chapel has always been and continues to be there to help those in need, no matter what that need might be. Often, people traveling would stop in Grand Junction needing help. Perhaps their car had broken down or they were out of money and needed a place to stay. These folks were directed to go to Handy Chapel.

Well into the 1940s, it was nearly impossible for black people to rent houses in Grand Junction. Handy Chapel reached out there, too. For several years there were two houses located on the church property where Handy Chapel would let a family in need live in one of the houses until they could get back on their feet.

Only one house remains today. The other was destroyed by fire years ago.

In the 1980s the AME Conference claimed ownership and sought to sell Handy Chapel. Dickey and her daughter, Helen Dickey Wirth, succeeded in retaining ownership after an eight-year court battle. During those eight years, the church and house were rented out to various organization. Unfortunately, during that time the church was stripped of its pews, tables, piano, organ, pulpit and other furnishings.

Today, two men share ministerial duties at the church.

Harry Butler, whose uncles helped build the chapel, is the minister at Saturday services.

Dickey’s grandson, John Paul Dickey, is the fifth generation of her family to hold services at Handy Chapel. That service is on Sunday.

Josephine Dickey said, “The mission of Handy Chapel has been, and continues to be, that of helping with the spiritual, social and economic needs of all our fellow man.”

Now Handy Chapel is going to be repaid for its kindness through the years.

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Kathy Jordan is retired from The Daily Sentinel. She is involved in many local preservation efforts and is on the board of directors for Colorado Preservation Inc.

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