Union Baptist Church in Burlington, Iowa to Mark 150 Years


When the Rev. Lawrence Manson leads the 150th anniversary celebration of Union Baptist Church Sunday, he plans to burn the church’s mortgage.

The church was able to repay the 30-year mortgage in only 10 years and made the final payment June 6. The timing couldn’t have been better.

“It’s going to be a great service,” Manson said. “It’s going to be the best one we’ve ever had. We’re hoping that everyone will come out.”

The Sunday celebration will start at 3 p.m. at the church at 220 S. Central Ave., and will feature a variety of speakers highlighting the impact and history of the church.

Founded in 1866, Union Baptist began as Second Baptist at the corner of Sixth and High streets. Samuel Lee, the first black police officer in Burlington, and his wife, Maggie Lee, were key players in establishing the church as a separate entity, catering exclusively to a black congregation.

It was a church without a building, though.

“They met at other places, in basements,” said longtime parishioner Linda Robinson.

The Lees are honored in a stain glass window that remains in the church today.

“Think about what was going on at the time,” Robinson said. “The Civil War had just ended, and President Lincoln had been shot.”

In the spring of 1921, pastors and layman from five Baptist churches formed a building committee so the church finally could have a home. Vaunted Burlington businessman Edward P. Eastman and his wife, Millie, long wanted to do something worthwhile for the black community. They donated $3,000 used to construct the church at 220 S. Central Ave. in 1923.

The church promptly was renamed Union Baptist Church, and the $3,000 covered the entire cost of the building. Money already raised by the congregation was used to buy furniture for the new church.

Ground for a new sanctuary (where the 150-person congregation worships) was broken in 2003, while the old sanctuary became the fellowship hall. Manson recently moved from Des Moines before the groundbreaking, and the new sanctuary was completed in 2004.

Disaster struck in April 2011, when the church sanctuary was gutted by fire. The stained glass window paying tribute to Samuel and Maggie Lee survived, but hardly anything else did.

“We had to start over from scratch,” Robinson said.

The church sanctuary was rebuilt and re-opened to the congregation later that year. Though Union Baptist started as a black church, Robinson said the congregation is diverse.

“This is not a quote, unquote ‘black church.’ It is a church,” Robinson said.

A Burlington native, Robinson grew up Union Baptist Church. Several of her family members served as deacons.

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Source: The Hawk Eye | WILLIAM SMITH wsmith@thehawkeye.com