Bishop says goodbye to Mother Bethel AME

Bishop Richard Franklin Norris of the First Episcopal District of the African Methodist Episcopal Church reflects upon his tenure, in a conference room at administrative offices in Philadelphia, surrounded by portraits of his predecessors. TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
Bishop Richard Franklin Norris of the First Episcopal District of the African Methodist Episcopal Church reflects upon his tenure, in a conference room at administrative offices in Philadelphia, surrounded by portraits of his predecessors. TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
Posted: May 24, 2012

Wednesday will be a homecoming for Bishop Richard Franklin Norris as he steps, surely to applause, to the podium of Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church.

As pastor in the 1980s of this historic congregation — the “mother” church of the five million-member denomination founded here 218 years ago — Norris restored the landmark building and transformed a haphazard collection of memorabilia into an important African American museum and tourist destination.

“I think that may be my proudest accomplishment,” he said in an interview.

The 196th session of the Philadelphia Annual Conference, over which he will preside this week, will also be a farewell for the 70-year-old prelate.

In the African Methodist Episcopal Church, pastors and bishops serve where they are assigned. And so, after growing up in Philadelphia, pastoring Mother Bethel and St. Matthew’s A.M.E. in West Philadelphia for 14 years, and spending the last eight years here overseeing all 330 A.M.E. congregations from New England to Delaware and Bermuda, Norris is about to put a “for sale” sign on his home.

At an age when most men are at least contemplating retirement, he and his wife, Mary Ann, will learn next month at the A.M.E.’s quadrennial convention in Nashville where their next home will be.

“I’ll go wherever they send me,” the gray-haired Norris, dressed in the purple vest and pectoral cross of a bishop, said in his district headquarters on Market Street in West Philadelphia.”But I don’t know where that might be.”

He is a bishop right down to his cufflinks — he sports the A.M.E .coat of arms — and he favors gonging church bells as his iPhone ringtone.

But the work can be arduous, “with a lot of travel.”

This week’s Philadelphia Annual Conference, a gathering of the 80 A.M.E. congregations in Southeast Pennsylvania, is expected to draw 5,000 participants to Mother Bethel on South Sixth Street. It is just the latest in a series of regional conferences he attends as bishop. “I was in Rochester on Saturday,” he said, “and in Utica on the ninth, and I’ll be in Newark starting the third of June.”

Since his next assignment will likely entail supervising another district, he expects his duties will be familiar. Still, he will have to learn a new part of the country while acquainting himself with the hundreds of clergy whose careers he will be shaping and whose congregational assignments he will decide.

Making good congregational fits for his ministers is “most of what I do,” he said. Always a challenge, it has become even more difficult of late because so many pastors today hold jobs outside their churches and “don’t want to move.”

“I’ve got a wonderful congregation in Niagara Falls that needs a pastor,” he said, shaking his head, “but I can’t find anyone who wants to move to western New York.”

Norris is the father of a church organist and an A.M.E. pastor serving in Harlem. He himself was the sixth of 11 children of an A.M.E. preacher. Born in Atlanta, he moved to West Philadelphia and St. Matthew’s church in 1944 when his father, the Rev. David Norris, was made editor of the Christian Recorder. Founded in 1854, the A.M.E.’s monthly newspaper was edited and printed for decades in Philadelphia. Now published out of Nashville, it lays claim to being the oldest African American religious publication in the country.

Norris has no recollection of the move — he was 2 — but when he was made pastor of St. Matthew’s in 1993 he was amused to find the record of his parents’ application for membership, along with a note that the family included a “babe in arms: Richard.”

He evidently settled in well at St. Matthew’s. Licensed to preach at 15, he entered the denomination’s Morris Brown College in Atlanta before transferring to Rutgers, where he earned a degree in history.

The only one of his siblings to be ordained, he served in a variety of pulpits around the Northeast before he was assigned in 1986 to the iconic Mother Bethel (so named because it is the first and “mother” of all A.M.E. congregations) four years before the centennial of the current church’s dedication.

Although a registered national landmark since 1974, the stately brick building with the luminous, two-tiered, 1,200-seat sanctuary was in a “sorry state,” and the denomination’s leadership wanted him to restore it.

“I’m not a historian,” he conceded, “but I do love history.”

With $2.3 million in grants from the Pew Trust and the William Penn Foundation, he ordered up the removal and re-leading of all stained glass, had walls replastered and painted, and had the original African mahogany pews stripped and refinished.

“One benefit of being at Mother Bethel,” he said, “is that they have probably the best records of any church you will find,” including lists of all the colors and materials used in the original construction.

Mother Bethel was founded by the Rev. Richard Allen, one of the nation’s earliest champions of civil rights for African Americans. When the leadership of St. George’s Methodist-Episcopal Church on Fourth Street segregated black members from white in 1786, Allen, Absalom Jones, and others protested vigorously and later led its black congregants from the church.

In 1794, in a former blacksmith shop on Sixth Street near Lombard, Allen started a congregation he called the African Methodist Episcopal Church. In 1816, he founded a new denomination of that name and was its first bishop until his death in 1831.

While Mother Bethel possessed many records of the denomination’s founding, along with Allen’s memorabilia, its collection “was a little room in the cellar” when Norris arrived.

By the congregation’s bicentennial, however, its sanctuary and brick facade had been restored and the collection turned into a museum. Among the items on display are a clock from 1805, an oak pulpit believed to have been Allen’s, early 19th-century hymnals and prayer books, and the white-tiled tombs of Richard Allen and his second wife, Sarah.

On Saturday, in recognition of Norris’ service to Mother Bethel and the region, the 400-member congregation and the Philadelphia Annual Conference will present him with a copy of a newly discovered deed to the original cemetery where Allen’s first wife, Flora, was buried.

It will be a touching moment for the departing bishop. “Mother Bethel,” he said, “was among the high points of my ministry.”

Contact David O’Reilly at 215-854-5723 or doreilly@phillynews.com.

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