The ceiling inside Trinity CME Church at Eighth and Taylor streets is crumbling from water damage, and the mortar between some bricks is so powdery that it can be scraped away with a key.
Since Atlanta Gas Light started a multimillion-dollar decontamination project on the church grounds and surrounding area in 2003, the historic landmark has sat vacant and deteriorating, causing some advocates to wonder whether neglect will soon push it beyond repair.
“The longer it sits there, the more it’s going to cost and the harder it’s going to be to raise money to rehabilitate it,” said Robert Williams, the president of Miracle Making Ministries, which leases the building at no cost from the church’s owner, Atlanta Gas Light.
Williams said his ministry’s goal is to turn the 122-year-old structure into a cultural center for weddings, events or community service programs.
That dream is not possible until Atlanta Gas Light puts forward a cleanup plan to address lingering coal-tar contamination that must predicate any kind of rehabilitation work, according to John Fonk, the unit 2 coordinator of remedial sites for Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division.
Fonk said EPD is expecting to receive a remediation plan at the end of August, but without knowing the details it would be impossible to know whether the ministry could conduct rehab work around the cleanup or at all.
In a written statement, Atlanta Gas Light said the company plans to “move forward with a cleanup plan” that will include solidification of the residual materials underneath Walton Way, Eighth Street and portions of the parcel east of Eighth Street.
“It may require building demolition of the former Trinity CME Church building … to remove and/or relocate utilities and address the groundwater impacts beneath these streets,” the statement said.
Williams said he is hopeful the church building can be saved, given its historical significance – not just to Augusta but the nation.
Trinity CME was founded in 1843 by slaves who attended St. John Methodist Church with their white owners.
They worshipped under a brush arbor until a small barn-like structure was built in 1843. The current structure was erected in 1896.
On Jan. 6, 1869, Bishop George F. Pierce, the senior bishop of the Methodist Episcopal Church, organized the CME conference at Trinity, where the Colored Methodist Episcopal denomination was born.
In 1985, Atlanta Gas Light began soil and groundwater investigations at the former manufactured gas plant across the street from Trinity that operated from 1852 to 1955.
Soil and water tests confirmed contamination existed beyond the plant’s property lines – a result of coal tar disposed at the site and left behind after it closed.
In 1996, Atlanta Gas Light reached a settlement with Trinity and nearby residents, compensating hundreds of property owners in nine square blocks of the former plant site affected by the toxic coal-tar contamination.
Trinity received $3 million for damages and relocation costs, and the congregation moved to a new church on Glenn Hills Drive in 1998.
Atlanta Gas Light acquired the church building but leased it to Miracle Making Ministries, which used it as a base for health clinics and outreach until decontamination work began in 2003, Williams said.
According to past Chronicle reports, the decontamination project removed 120,000 tons of contaminated soil from the surrounding site. Fonk said environmental remediation is still going on, with two groundwater extraction wells in operation.
Groundwater is also still being tested semi-annually, he said.
The Rev. Herman “Skip” Mason, Trinity’s pastor, said he hopes Atlanta Gas Light can form a cleanup plan that does not involve demolition because of the spiritual importance the old church still has today.
The church was placed on the Georgia Trust’s Places in Peril list in 2008 and is designated a historic property under Augusta’s local historic preservation ordinance, which requires the preservation committee’s approval for any rehabilitation or demolition work.
But with the uncertainty around the environmental hazards and remediation work, Mason is also fearful.
“This church is the physical, tangible evidence of a group of former slaves and freemen and slaves that decided they wanted to create a church of their own,” he said. “It’s precious and we must protect it.”