Abyssinian Meeting House could receive $1.7 million in federal funding

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Oct. 20—The Abyssinian Meeting House could receive $1.7 million in federal funding to complete the restoration of the historic former church built by some of Portland's earliest Black residents.

The money is part of the latest budget proposal for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development that was released Monday, said U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine.

If approved by the House and Senate, the money would be used to complete the final phase of a restoration project that began nearly 25 years ago, including the design and construction of interior spaces for community events, exhibits and educational programming.

"We're very excited, but we're trying to remain calm and cool," said Pamela Cummings, a leader of the Committee to Restore the Abyssinian. "That money would go a long way toward completing the project."

Built in 1828, the Abyssinian is the nation's third-oldest meetinghouse constructed by a Black congregation, after churches in Boston and Nantucket. Once the restoration is completed, it will serve as a public venue to foster knowledge and understanding of Maine's vibrant African-American community — past, present and future.

"The Abyssinian holds great historical significance, both in Maine and in the United States," the restoration committee wrote in its application to Collins. "(It is Portland's) only historic building dedicated to the quest for personal freedom, civil rights and equal opportunity for all."

Located in Portland's historic East End, the Abyssinian is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and recognized as a northern hub of the Underground Railroad and the anti-slavery movement. In 2013, the National Trust for Historic Preservation listed the Abyssinian as one of the most endangered historic places in the United States.

Despite such significant recognition, the restoration committee struggled to raise the just over $1 million that was spent through last year to restore the timber frame building at 75 Newbury St. from its brick-and-mortar basement to its hand-hewn roof beams.

Committee leaders had hoped to raise an additional $1 million to complete the project before the building's 200th anniversary. In 2020, the restoration effort received more than $375,000 in donations in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests in Maine and across the nation.

Collins has pledged to shepherd the $1.7 million appropriation through the final budget process. She is a senior member of the Senate Appropriations Committee and ranking member and lead Republican on the HUD Appropriations Subcommittee.

"The Abyssinian is a cultural landmark that preserves an integral part of our nation's history, as well as African-American heritage in Maine," Collins said in a written statement. "I will continue to champion this investment ... so that current and future generations can learn about this historically significant building, as well as the people who worshipped and preached here."

U.S. Sen. Angus King, an independent, and U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-1st District, also requested funding for the Abyssinian.

In 1826, six free Black men — Reuben Ruby, Caleb Jonson, Clemant Tomson, Job Wentworth, Christopher Manuel and John Sigs — published a letter in a Portland newspaper announcing their plan to build a church for the Black community. They said they no longer wanted to be relegated to the balconies and back pews of Portland's white houses of worship.

"Pardon our misapprehensions, if they be such," the men wrote, "(but) we have sometimes thought our attendance was not desired."

The Abyssinian thrived through the 1800s as the religious and cultural heart of Portland's Black community. But church membership took a serious blow in 1898, when the SS Portland was caught in a terrible storm and sank during a return trip from Boston.

At least 194 people died when the steamship went down, including 19 crew members who attended the Abyssinian. Two of them were church trustees. The congregation never recovered, and the church eventually closed. It was sold and converted into a tenement, with an added floor dividing the soaring sanctuary into several low-budget apartments.

City officials sold the boarded-up, fire-damaged, tax-delinquent property to the restoration committee in 1998 for $250. Since then, the nonprofit group has worked to stabilize, study and restore the building through grants and donations.

"This is a project that's been slowly moving along as they can afford to do it," said Julie Larry, advocacy director at Greater Portland Landmarks. "It's such an impressive building, it's a shame the restoration hasn't been completed yet. This funding is so necessary to complete a restoration project that is so relevant to what's going on today."

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