Convent Avenue Baptist Church was founded on February 4, 1942 by Dr. John W. Saunders, formerly pastor of the Walker Memorial Baptist Church. Two years earlier, Dr. Saunders, already in his seventies, had formed a group known as the “Kingdom Builders.” The Kingdom Builders held services in the former Congress Casino and the old Baptist Temple in Harlem.
The Kingdom Builders, with a $50,000 mortgage, purchased the sanctuary of the former Washington Heights Baptist Church and on February 4, 1942, they Kingdom Builders walked up 145th Street to occupy what is now the Convent Avenue Baptist Church. Howard Ruthus Mann became the Church’s Minister of Music and served in that role for 42 years. Professor Mann started what continues to be a hallmark of worship at Convent, an extraordinary ministry of music rivaled by few churches anywhere. The church now has six musical choirs, plus a spoken word Scripture Choir called the Living Word Ministry.
Membership flourished and the church retired and burned the $50,000 mortgage after only three years and three months. Rev. Saunders established the J.W. Saunders Youth Center, a day nursery to assist young parents, scouting programs, vacation bible school, release-time classes and the Junior Church. Under his leadership, the church acquired three townhouses – 418 W. 145th Street, 354 and 356 Convent Avenue.
In 1955, Dr. Saunders suffered a debilitating stroke that curtailed his active leadership. Rev. Mannie L. Wilson served as interim pastor for the next five years. After a faithful struggle, Rev. Saunders died in February, 1961 at the age of 92. Three months later the church called Rev. Wilson as the second pastor of the Convent Avenue Baptist Church.
The church continued to grow under Rev. Wilson, especially its Sunday Church School which grew to serve 1500 students. The church membership grew to 3000. With this strong base, the church purchased 425 W. 144th Street, a large six-story structure that now serves as the John W. Saunders Education Building. The church also purchased two more townhouses, 402 West 145th Street and 348 Convent Avenue.
Rev. Wilson was active in the larger Harlem community, the nation and the world. To serve the growing Hispanic community in Harlem, he helped organize the Washington Heights Spanish Baptist Church and housed its worship in 354 Convent Avenue. Convent was also instrumental in the birth and support of local congregations, viz., Abundant Life and Powerhouse Ministry. Under his leadership, the church organized the Hamilton Grange Senior Citizens Center and the Boys and Girls Club of Harlem. He served on the board of the Harlem YMCA.
Rev. Wilson was the first African-American Protestant to preach in St. Patrick’s Cathedral and the first black pastor to preach in the White House. He was a board member of the Baptist World Alliance, Union Theological Seminary, Lott Carey Foreign Mission Convention, the National Conference of Black Church Men and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and American Baptist Churches (USA). He was the first African-American to serve as president of the American Baptist Churches (USA).
On the global front, Rev. Wilson led the church to support mission work in Liberia, Nigeria and Guyana. In Guyana, there is a chapel named in his honor.
From 1970 to 1982, Rev. Clarence P. Grant, assisted Rev. Wilson as Minister of Christian Education and as pastor in the Junior Church. He implemented the federal Harlem Juvenile Diversion Program aimed at deterring youngsters from the justice system, the Academic Achievement Center, the NYC/Convent Home Attendant Program, the Harlem Restoration Project, the Harlem Employment and Learning Project, Project Help for school drop outs, the New York Vocational Exploration Program, the Food Pantry, the John W. Saunders Group Home and the IMCR Dispute Center.
Rev. Wilson died in 1982. The church called Rev. Grant as the third pastor of the Convent Avenue Baptist Church. Under his leadership the church completed the construction of the M.L. Wilson Walkway that connects the sanctuary with the J.W. Saunders Education Building. Later the church purchased lot at 641 St. Nicholas Avenue which continues through to 144th Street and Hamilton Terrace (see Appendix 3 for church properties). The church also completed a restoration of its pews and its pipe organ. The pipe organ restoration is the largest installation of its type in any African-American church. Rev. Grant started Chapel at the Crossroads, a weekly service at noon each Wednesday, followed by the Pastor’s Bible Study. He founded the Bettie B. Wilson Learning Center and the JW Saunders Scholarship Fund that assist young church members with college tuition. Rev. Grant was also an ardent leader in the successful fight to repeal the Rockefeller Drug Laws.
Convent Avenue Baptist Church is known as the home of the Baptist Ministers Conference of Greater New York and Vicinity. Each Monday ministers from all over the Tri-State area gather at the church for their weekly meeting, including the prestigious Martin Luther King, Jr. service each year in January. The church also provides administrative office space for this group.
In May, 2005 Rev. Grant went home to the Lord leaving the church another great legacy of service to God. I Corinthians 3:6 (paraphrased) reminds us that “One man plants, another waters, but God gives the increase”.
The church proudly welcomed Rev. Dr. Jesse T. Williams, Jr. to be the fourth pastor in April, 2007. Dr. Williams was licensed to preach the Gospel in June 1983 at the Mount Carmel Missionary Baptist Church, Topeka, Kansas and was ordained to the Gospel Ministry in December 1990 at the West Side Baptist Church, St. Louis, Missouri. Prior to accepting the call from Convent Avenue, Dr. Williams served 16 years as Pastor of the historic Washington Tabernacle Baptist Church of St. Louis, Missouri. Dr. Williams’ ministry is guided by this spiritual principle of reconciliation and is evidenced by the fruits of his labor in preparation and service.
It is therefore not surprising and quite exciting to acknowledge and highlight that under Dr. Williams’ pastoral leadership the Convent Avenue Church Family has significantly increased in membership, worship attendance, and tithes and offering commitments. Pastor Williams has instituted the partaking of Communion during the First Sunday 8:00 a.m. and 11:00 a.m. worship services as an addition to the 5:00 p.m. Communion Celebration Service. He ordained two ministers, licensed three ministers and ordained four deacons. He initiated the hiring of an Executive Minister and an Executive Assistant to the Senior Pastor, as well as our new Minister of Children & Youth, and facilitated the first leadership retreat with the Official Boards. Pastor Williams has developed a new church motto and initiated the development of the church logo that is part of the revitalized Convent Church website. He also introduced the First ever Annual Report. Rev. Dr. Williams has also initiated the restructuring of the New Members Training Classes and Curriculum. As a visionary, who understands the plethora of societal needs, Rev. Dr. Williams is constantly seeking the face of God for wisdom, guidance, direction and discernment in spiritually leading and effecting holistic change not only for the Convent Avenue Church family but the Harlem Community at large. He continues the legacy of Convent Avenue Baptist Church.