Peoria church celebrates being almost as old as city

By Anna Yee

October 21, 2012 Updated Oct 21, 2012 at 10:26 PM CDT

PEORIA, Ill. -- From then... Until now.

That was the theme remembered Sunday inside Ward Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church, as the congregation and choir sang "Oh happy day!"

And a happy day it was.

The church celebrated its 166th year anniversary, just one year younger than the city of Peoria.

Ward Chapel AME is actually Peoria's first African American church. Evidence of its rich history is immortalized inside these walls.

"You will see pictures of Mahalia Jackson, Langston Hughes, Frederick Douglas who actually came to Ward Chapel in those early years," said Reverend Elaine Walters, senior pastor at Ward Chapel. "So, we're really proud of the history."

Thomas Lilly has been a member of Ward Chapel for more than 50 years.

He moved to Peoria after serving in World War II and says he found his home here.

"It just seems like I'm coming to my family, you know," said Lilly. "Everybody's just so nice here."

Lilly says more young faces have filled the pews over the years.

That's one reason why the church continues to invest in other programs, like education, social outreach, and a weekly breakfast for hundreds of people in need.

"For us, it's never enough just to be satisfied with a Sunday morning worship and say, 'OK, we've worshiped, and we can go now. We've had a good time,'" said Rev. Walters. "We also are always challenged to extend our arms beyond our sanctuary."

Even City leaders recognize those efforts.

Councilman Eric Turner presented Ward Chapel with a proclamation, re-affirming the church's role in history.

"It's not only a safe haven," said Councilman Turner. "It's been a staple in the community, especially the African American community. As goes the history of this church, so goes the history of Peoria."

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