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Ensley Highlands Methodist Church | Photo © 2018 www.abandonedalabama.com

Ensley Highlands Methodist Church

Location Class:
Built: 1952-1956 | Abandoned: c. 2000
Status: Burned Down
Photojournalist: David Bulit

Ensley Highlands Methodist Church

The Beginning and Its Rapid Growth

Ensley Highlands Methodist Church was an outgrowth of a Sunday School started in 1911 by a group of Methodists. Late that same year, Reverend Jesse C. Persinger conducted a revival, and the church was organized on July 24, 1914, under the guidance of Reverend William G. Gaston. Reverend B. G. Hodges By the time of the annual conference in Sylacauga in November 1914, the church’s membership had grown to 103.

In 1915, Reverend William Wallace Dorman assumed the role of pastor. Following his tenure, a succession of pastors served this congregation: Rev. Walter Perry McGlawn, Rev. James Spencer Glasgow, Rev. Lewis Garner Sturdivant, Rev. Louis A. Holmes, Rev. M. E. Wilson, Rev. U. S. Pitts, Rev. Boyd T. Cantrell, and Rev. George Frederick Cooper who commenced serving in 1927.

Initially, the congregation utilized a frame building located at Eighteenth Avenue and Twenty-Eighth Street for several years. Under the guidance of Reverend L. G. Sturdivant, the groundwork for an education building was laid. During the pastorate of Reverend L. A. Holmes, the building was completed for $35,000. Upon its completion, the planning of a new auditorium commenced.

Reverend G. F. Cooper was pastor then, and J. F. Burford, O. C. Nichols, and Wilson Thomas Mullinax composed the building committee responsible for the new building’s construction. Located in front of the education building, the new auditorium was completed in 1929, and both buildings represented an investment of more than $100,000.

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The Ensley Highland Methodist Church education building which was constructed at a cost of $35,000. The building remained standing until its demolition in 2023. Birmingham Post-Herald
Ensley Highlands Methodist Church
The Ensley Highlands Methodist Church auditorium built in 1929. This building would be replaced a few decades later. Birmingham Post-Herald

1952 Expansion Project

In 1948, Reverend James E. Harris took on the role of pastor of the Ensley Highlands Methodist Church, relocating to Birmingham from Montevallo. By the time the sanctuary was finished in 1952, sixteen ministers had served at Ensley Highlands Methodist since its inception. The building committee, spearheaded by Reverend Caroll D. Swann, dedicated significant effort to erecting the new church. The committee coordinated the construction efforts and oversaw all aspects of the project. The inaugural service in the new sanctuary, led by Pastor James E. Harris, occurred on March 16, 1952.

In February 1956, construction began on the new 5,000-square-foot Sunday School building, connected to the main sanctuary. The three-story structure, designed by architects Green, Holmquist, and Chambers, boasted brick construction, which was deemed enough to be considered “fireproof.” The project also included refurbishing the current education building and installing air conditioning within the sanctuary, amounting to a comprehensive cost of $55,000. The task of erecting the Sunday School building was entrusted to the Steel City Construction Company.

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The Ensley Highlands Methodist Church auditorium building was erected in 1952. Birmingham Post-Herald
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Architect’s drawing of the new Sunday School building which connected to the 1929 Education Building. Birmingham Post-Herald

The Church and Ensley’s Decline

During the 1950s to the 1970s, most of the church congregation found employment at the nearby TCI steelworks. However, by the late 1980s, the closure of the steelworks led to a mass exodus, with approximately half of the congregation either retiring or relocating elsewhere. Concurrently, shifts in Ensley’s racial demographics precipitated the departure of white families attending the Methodist church. As new black families moved into the neighborhood, few had ties to the church.

Rising Crimes Rates and Its Effects on the Church

Amidst this period, crime rates surged in the western sector of Birmingham, instilling fear among many parishioners of the church, most of whom were elderly. Concerns mounted over potential attacks or vandalism to their vehicles while attending church services. The apprehension was particularly pronounced during evening services, as several church members had already fallen victim to car thefts or robberies. Within a mere year, three church members experienced the theft of their vehicles, exacerbating anxieties and further dissuading attendance, especially during evening gatherings.

In July 1987, an incident occurred when a 74-year-old woman was mugged at the church’s doorway. Recounting the event, she had parked across the street and was heading towards the side doors when a car suddenly halted, and a young man leaped out, pursuing her up the sidewalk. In a violent encounter, he knocked her down, seizing her purse along with her diamond and gold necklaces.

In the aftermath, Pastor Reverend M. J. “Mac” McElhany shared with the Birmingham Post-Herald the pervasive fear gripping the community. He revealed how even his secretary was apprehensive about carrying a purse to work, and his wife had ceased bringing a pocketbook to church altogether. He attributed the church’s tribulations to the broader crime crisis plaguing Birmingham’s western precincts. Despite the challenges, Reverend McElhany stepped forward to lead Ensley Highlands, recognizing the reluctance of many pastors to undertake roles in smaller churches located within high-crime areas.

With the congregation predominantly comprising elderly members, averaging around 60 years old, and lacking children, the church faced demographic challenges. Although the congregation totaled approximately 340 members in the late 1980s, many were confined to their homes or nursing facilities. Sunday attendance averaged around 80 individuals.

Reverend McElhany framed the crime issue as stemming from external sources and the evolving neighborhood dynamics. Notably, recovered items from thefts, including the mugging victim’s purse, were traced to locations like Gardendale and North Birmingham. Ensley Highlands joined forces with neighboring churches to engage with off-duty officers and volunteers for enhanced surveillance. Reverend McElhany advocated for increased police presence as a broader solution to address the community’s safety concerns.

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Reverend M. J. McElhany

Closure of Methodist Churches

By 1990, the Methodist church had experienced losses of about 100,000 members a year, dwindling from 10.9 million to 9.1 million in 1986. Ensley Highlands Methodist Church had long suffered with a loss in attendance, plummeting from a bustling sanctuary hosting 600 attendees on Sundays in the 1960s to fewer than 100 in 1983 and dwindling further to only a few dozen by its closing.

The Alabama National Conference announced that Inglenook United Methodist and Ensley Highlands Methodist Church would have their final service on May 27, 1990. This was a response to the dwindling membership among Methodist churches in Alabama. The previous year, Walker Memorial United Methodist Church closed its doors, while another, Central Park United Methodist Church, burned to the ground in April 1990. Reverend McElhany said, “It’s a sign of the times… There are no young people, no families, children, youth. We have no evening services on Sundays anymore because we just couldn’t ask the old ladies to come out at night.

The property eventually changed hands and was sold to another church, the Warriors of the Word church. The former Ensley Highlands Memorial Church remained vacant since its closure in the early 2000s. A significant stained-glass window portraying a kneeling Jesus Christ found a new home at a Methodist church in Palmerdale.

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Destruction of the Ensley Highlands Methodist Church

On June 5, 2023, a devastating fire erupted within the sanctuary, swiftly engulfing the entire structure. Birmingham Fire and Rescue teams swiftly responded to the escalating flames and dense smoke emanating from the rooftop. Antwon Womack, a resident and president of the Ensley Highlands neighborhood, disclosed that the community had been actively grappling with issues stemming from the vacant building, including previous minor fires.

As investigations into the fire’s cause commenced, Womack revealed efforts to contact the potential owner, who disavowed any ownership. In the blaze’s aftermath, authorities demolished the church building, clearing the property of debris.

Ensley Highlands MEthodist Church fire
The former Ensley Highlands Methodist Church as it burns on June 5, 2023. Jarrell V. Jordan Company

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David Bulit

My name's David Bulit and I'm a photographer, author, and historian from Miami, Florida. I've published a number of books on abandoned and forgotten locales throughout the United States and advocate for preserving these historic landmarks. My work has been featured throughout the world in news outlets such as the Miami New Times, the Florida Times-Union, the Tampa Bay Times, the Orlando Sentinel, NPR, Yahoo News, MSN, the Daily Mail, UK Sun, and many others. You can find more of my work at davidbulit.com as well as amazon.com/author/davidbulit.

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