Landmark church to reopen

Published 1:34 am Saturday, October 31, 2015

In the early morning hours of Dec. 16, 2012, the iconic Bethlehem Baptist Church on East Seventh Street in Bogalusa was destroyed by fire.

The fire didn’t destroy just any church, but a Bogalusa landmark. Bethlehem is the oldest African-American church in the city, after its founding on June 12, 1907. The church was originally located in the Old Mill Quarters on Avenue T on land donated by Great Southern Lumber Company. The church moved to its current location in 1961.

The fire destroyed only building materials, not members’ resolve to carry on the church’s tradition.
At 3 p.m. on Sunday, church officials will rededicate the church in a grand reopening. The guest speaker for the occasion will be the Rev. Dr. Bobby Showers Sr., president of the Third District Bogue Chitto Association, of which Bethlehem is a member.

“We started from the ashes,” Bethlehem pastor, the Rev. Christopher Matthews, said as a wide smile lined his face. “With much prayer, members of this great church came together and we formed a building committee, which consists of our auxiliary leaders.

“We sought out a contractor and began to work. Since that time, God has blessed us tremendously. Souls have been saved. We were blessed to have ordained four ministers: Pastor Michael O’Ree, Dr. Raven Evans, Minister Marvin Austin Jr. and Rev. James Jones.”

O’Ree currently heads up Christway Ministries in Bogalusa.

Jenet Patterson chaired the restoration committee. Committee members also included Glennis McKelphin Jr., Veronica Smith, Tonia Collins, April Brister, Josephine Thomas and Erin Owens.

“It has been a long journey since the time of the fire,” Matthews said. “We kept the faith and kept fighting because we knew that this church is still standing on the word of God, which is our theme for the dedication service.”

Matthews’ wife, Lachante Matthews, agreed with her husband’s assesment of the tragedy.

“We have come this far by faith. I truly believe when we pray, there is power in prayer,” she said. “It has been a long journey.”

Christopher Matthews is Bethlehem’s 10th pastor. He became pastor in March of 2009.

“It is a joy and I’m exceedingly glad that the Lord has blessed me to enter into a new Bethlehem Baptist Church,” he said. “So many of the pioneers here have gone on ahead, but those of us who are left from the Mill Quarters are continuing to keep the legacy alive to uplift the Kingdom of Jesus.”

Matthews noted that the church has a long, and varied history, and has served as a landmark in the city for years.

“This church has a rich history and I can’t stress that enough,” he said. “There are many who served (as pastors), like Rev. Dr. Raymond Mims, current pastor of Greater Ebenezer Baptist Church, Rev. Dr. Atwood Luter, current pastor of Mount Zion Baptist Church, and the late Rev. Dr. James Cyrus, who pastored Second Baptist Church in Bogalusa.

“Also, the Rev. Jerry Sam Young served as pastor of Mount Moriah Baptist Church, and later became assistant pastor under the leadership of the Rev. Dr. Aaron J. Thompson, who served as pastor for 34 years until 2008.”

Matthews credited Mount Bethel Baptist Church and pastor Johnny Johnson for giving Bethlehem members a place to worship after the fire.

“I am humbled and yet proud to serve as pastor of this historical church,” Matthews said, as he sat in the sanctuary. “This church is dear to me. I preached my second sermon here in 1978 when I was 13. God has blessed us. We’re moving forward.”