New life

AME Zion church finds home at Heritage Center

A church with a rich history now has a rich future. Wilder’s Chapel AME Zion Church was dedicated Sunday in its new home at the Great Smoky Mountain Heritage Center. More than 100 people packed into the small, white paneled church, as those who saved it and gave it to the Heritage Center also honored a friend.

The church was built 100 years ago and members of the AME Zion congregation gathered to help celebrate the day.

Heritage Center board chairman Richard Maples dedicated the church to his friend, the late Rev. Ray Robinson.

“We were looking for a primitive church to put here at the Heritage Center. Then my friend passed away, and I wanted to do something in his honor. We found this church and brought it up here, and we are dedicating it to Rev. Ray Robinson. He was a minister 40-plus years all over Tennessee,” he said.

Bob Patterson, executive director of the Heritage Center, said Maples purchased the church, paid to move it, restore it and put a bell tower in it

Richard Way, past chair, said the gathering and the church are important for two reasons. “One is because of who we are honoring,” said Way. “This was a person who lived his religion, and he was the type person you tried to be like. The second is that it is really important to honor the memory of the congregation that started this church. It was the oldest AME Zion Methodist church in Blount County.”

Lola Henry, oldest member of the church, said the day meant a lot to her. “I’m just happy. It is right where it belongs,” she said.

Robinson’s daughter, Joy Shultz, thanked Maples for what he was doing in her father’s memory. “He was my daddy. I think it was very nice of Richard. My father loved the Heritage Center and was a big supporter,” she said.

Former Blount County Mayor Jerry Cunningham remembered Robinson fondly. “He was one of our first ministers. Our daughter Julie was the first baby he baptized. He and I became very good friends,” Cunningham said. “He was the kind of minister you could visit with about anything. He was a wonderful man. To me, Ray Robinson was the epitome of my vision of a minister.”

Maples thanked people who helped find the church, move it and prepare it for the dedication. He thanked Richard Way for helping find the church. “Richard Way and I started looking for a church all over, and this church was by far the best. Don Story painted the church. He was a friend of Ray Robinson, and said, ‘I think I’ll help,’ and he painted the church inside and out.”

Story said he just wanted to do something to honor his friend. “I wanted to do it for Ray and Jane. They were my neighbors and real good friends,” Story said.

Maples thanked Stone Carr for helping facilitate the purchase of the church on Amerine Road in Maryville. Carr spoke about the history of the church and how it was built in 1910, remodeled and upgraded in 1944. In 1971, regular church services ceased because of fading membership. “Between 1971 and 1994 homecomings and burials were held at the church, but there was no evidence of services being held there after 1974,” Carr said. He said the old congregation were happy with where the church has found a new home and grateful to Maples for purchasing and moving it and donating it to the Heritage. Another congregation tried to occupy the building in 1996, and, after a court battle, it was decided the deed reverted back to the bishop. After the church and the bishop negotiated, the cemetery association was able to buy the church.

“After much negotiation, we came to a dollar amount we could afford, and we have passed that along to the Heritage Center,” Carr said. “We are proud of the fact our history is being remembered here. This is something we don’t often see, but we want to get this history preserved in a way that can be tracked.”

Charles Davis’ family attended the church when it was on Amerine Road. “It was our desire to have it come up here. “It is better to do it this way to than to let it go.”

Robinson’s widow Jane was surprised by the dedication, but said her husband would have been honored. “He loved people, and he was much loved,” she said.

Jerry Hodge said Robinson was his family’s pastor at First United Methodist in the 1970s. “We kept up with him throughout the years. When he retired, he came back and became a member of our Sunday School class. He was a great guy and friend,” Hodge said.

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