Driving along West Broad Street the beginning of Hopewell Borough’s history might be easy to miss, but it is captured inside and outside of the Old School Baptist Church and Meeting House.
The red-brick Old School Baptist Church and Meeting House and the cemetery on the grounds of the property at 46-48 West Broad Street in Hopewell Borough offers a window into history that dates back to the 1700s.
Walking through the cemetery, after entering the iron fence gates which date back to 1873, headstones vary in condition as some gravestones display no dates or names and others that do. The cemetery is the burial ground of John Hart, Revolutionary and Civil War soldiers, and slaves.
The burial grave monument also located near John Hart’s burial monument is the location where in late 1795 a school house was built and was there for 50 years before being torn down around 1855.
Pushing open the first doors to enter the Old School Baptist Church and passing through a second set of doors, inside pews are lined behind each other and fill the church and meeting house from the sides and the middle as the light shines on the white walls and building columns.
The front of the room features a smaller staged area the contains a podium as the walls display photos of the building’s history.
Four trustees now oversee the the Old School Baptist Church and Meeting House: Kris Provenzano, Julie Osborn, Marcia Lowe and George Wislar.
They seek to maintain the building’s history and to do so are raising funds to reach a $75,000 goal to not only make repairs and provide for maintenance, but to establish the church as a historical site and help teach residents about the structure and site’s history.
The trustees so far have raised around $6,000.
“We have had success with people donating. Our original plan was to be able to buy us enough time for the next two years to raise $75,000,” Provenzano said. “That would get us two years of bills, and what we need to keep us running, and also give us time to become a historical site. It is a lot of money we are asking for and I think that is our first phase.”
She added that the second phase would include restorations onsite and also trying to be open to the public.
“Top items to restore – a lot of the cemetery stones are in disrepair, the brick work needs to be worked on, the foundation needs work, the wood frames on the outside are starting to peel, and the shutters also need work,” Provenzano said. “The rod iron fence needs to be repaired as pieces from the fence have broken off and pew cushions also need to be replaced.”
According to professional Archaeologist Ian Burrow and founder of BurrowIntoHistory LLC, originally built in the late 1740s and on land that would be donated by John Hart, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, the church and meeting house would be the beginning of what is established as Hopewell Borough.
“This was the beginning of Hopewell Borough as a little place, really. This was sort of the anchor point that encouraged other people to start building around here,” he said. “This place is a key component of Hopewell and the anchor point for the whole town. The Old School Baptist Church and Meeting House and cemetery is a fantastic time capsule.”
Hart was able to acquire a charter for the local Baptist congregation and signed the deed for the 3/4 acre-property that the church and meeting house was built on, according to the late local historian David Blackwell and the Hopewell Museum.
“They got this 3/4 acre property in 1747 and the actual congregation started meeting in peoples houses in 1715,” Burrow added. “They were given this piece of land through John Hart and built the first meeting house in 1747 and then in 1822 they decided to rebuild it.”
Additional land would be acquired after to add to the 3/4 acre property donated by Hart.
The church building was rebuilt in 1822.
“The Rev. Isaac Eaton was really the first long-term pastor of this church and so when he died he was buried inside and probably still is,” he said. “When they rebuilt the church in 1822, they moved his gravestone that was inside the church outside alongside the red brick [facing out to the gravestones].”
The village it anchored was eventually called Hopewell a few years later in 1825. More than a century after being rebuilt church services were discontinued in 1973 with the death of its last male member due to the church charter.
However, each year the Hopewell Borough Council of Churches holds a service at the Old School Baptist Church every Thanksgiving week.
“I would like for this to become a historical site first. To go through the actual paperwork and get this be a state registered historic place and a nationally registered one,” Osborn said. “Why right now? We are in the stage where we want to do this.”
There is a connection to the Revolutionary War with the history of the building and property. When 1775 arrived and news would ultimately reach Hopewell about the battles of Concord and Lexington, Col. Joab Houghton, while attending a service at the church, would tell messengers with the news about the battles to wait until the service ended.
Houghton on the stone block in front of the church encouraged people residing in the area to march to Boston and battle the redcoats, according to the Blackwell.
“This was a piece of history that I had not known early on and would be something that stood out to me. The story of Col. Joab Houghton, who made the messengers wait till the church service was done and then went out on the steps urging people to march to Boston,” Osborn added.
Another piece of history from the church and meeting house revolves around African American history.
“One big question is that we know there were African American members of this congregation and we do not know if any of these gravestones are theirs or if they were buried somewhere else,” Burrow said. “There is a story which is yet to be told.”
There was also an enslaved boy named Friday Truehart, who Rev. Oliver Hart brought with him from South Carolina. Hart was one of the pastors in the history of the Old School Baptist Church.
“I was born in Princeton hospital. I was not aware that slavery went this far north before I moved to Hopewell,” Wislar said. “To me I think it is really important to know that there are slaves still buried here and slave graves here in proximity to their families.”
The trustees want the building and property to be open to the public, have programs at the Old School Baptist Church, hold church tours and cemetery tours.
“What I would like to see in the future is the Old School Baptist Church and Meeting House brought back to life. Have new memories be created here, be it a wedding or etc.,” Wislar said.
The trustees moving forward are seeking to add more people to the board. To contact the trustees, contact email@example.com.
People interested in donating can do so via Paypal and checks may be made payable to “Hopewell Old School Baptist Church” and mailed to the Hopewell Old School Baptist Church, P.O. Box 23, Hopewell 08525.