Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church, located at 301 Patton Avenue, NW, has served as a center of worship for Gainsboro residents since the early 1890s.
Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church developed from the missionary efforts of Rev. Peyton Rutherfoord Twine. He was originally from Amelia County, VA, and was educated at Lincoln University and Seminary in Chester Pennsylvania. Rev. Twine organized three Sunday Schools in the area. The one in Gainsboro evolved into Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church.
Some of the church’s original members include Lucy Addison, Jesse W. Wingfield, Thomas T. Henry, John Riley Dungee, Edmond Irvin Terry, Albert Franklin Brooks, Charles H. Dodson, and John Reynolds. Lucy Addison was one of the church’s most dedicated founding members. She served as superintendent of the Sunday School and worked as an educator in the church for more than 32 years.
Constructing and Expanding the First Church Building
Before finding a permanent home, the Sunday School met in several locations including Davis Hall, the basement of an A.M.E. Church, and a small hall on Sixth Avenue. In 1891 the church purchased land on what had been known as Fifth Avenue, but was renamed Patton Avenue. However, the church decided to continue to use the name Fifth Avenue.
In 1892 Rev. Twine resigned from church leadership for health reasons. Taking charge of the congregation in 1893 was its second pastor, Rev. Joseph Lee Spurlarke. He was a native of Salem, VA, the first African American graduate of Hamilton College, and a graduate of Auburn Theological Seminary (both in New York). Unfortunately he died of typhoid fever in 1894.
In July of 1894, Rev. Lylburn Liggins Downing became the pastor of Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church. Originally from Lexiginton, VA, he held a divinity degree from Lincoln University. From 1895-96 he oversaw the construction of the church on Patton Avenue. An addition was made to the church in 1919 to accommodate its growing congregation.
After Rev. Downing’s death in 1937, Rev. Henry Lawrence McCrorey Jr. took over as Fifth Avenue’s pastor. Rev. McCrorey was a native of North Carolina and a graduate of Biddle University’s School of Theology. He resigned in 1941 and was succeeded by Rev. William James Simmons in 1942. Rev. Simmons was raised in Charleston, SC, and a graduate of Lincoln University and Union Theological Seminary in New York. Rev. Simmons brought a minister of music to the church, Professor Troy Porter Gorum, who greatly enriched Fifth Avenue’s musical offerings. Reverend Simmon left the Fifth Street church in 1953 to join the faculty at Tennessee State University.
A New Building
Rev. Curtis Andre Kearns was the last pastor to serve the church in its original building, assuming the ministry in 1955. Raised in Charlotte, NC, he was a graduate of Johnson C. Smith University and attended Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, VA. He arrived at the church on the morning of Sunday, November 29, 1959, to find it on fire. Presumed to be caused by faulty wiring, the fire destroyed the roof and damaged the pews, tile floor, plaster walls, and lighting fixtures.
The church determined the best route forward was to completely raze the structure and rebuild. The congregation discussed moving the church to a more suburban neighborhood, where some members had moved, but decided to remain at the historic Patton Avenue site, where many parishioners still lived. Only the baptismal font, two flower stands, and the “Stonewall” Jackson window were salvaged. On June 1, 1961, the new church building was finished, and services resumed.
Subsequent ministers at Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church include:
- Rev. Dr.William Grant Heck III (1972-1981)
- Rev. James Roosevelt Ephraim Jr. (1982-1988)
- Rev. Dr. Vernie L. Bolden Sr. (1991-1994)
- Rev. Michael Lynn Moore (1996-1998)
- Rev. Dr. William Thomas Reinhold (2000-2005)
- Rev. Vernie L. Bolden Jr. (2017-present)
The Stained-Glass Memorial
In 1906 Rev. Downing arranged for a stained-glass window memorializing Confederate General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson to be installed in the church. The window depicts the Shenandoah Valley, with Jackson’s last words inscribed on it. “Let us cross the river and rest in the shade of the trees.”
Jackson, while an instructor at the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, VA, founded and led a Sunday School for free and enslaved Black individuals, attended by Rev. Downing’s parents. The school continued, and was later attended by Rev. Downing.
Two other stained glass windows were dedicated to persons who supported Rev. Downing and his education: Col. John Thomas Lewis Preston, a founder of the Virginia Military Institute and the Superintendent of the Lexington Sunday School; and Rev. Doctor and Mrs. James I. Brownson, who financially supported Downing’s education.
The installation ceremony was national news, and notable in that it was attended not only by the church congregation, but by representatives of several Confederate veteran organizations, many leading white citizens of Roanoke, as well as “Uncle” Jeff Shields, a formerly enslaved man who attended Gen. Jackson’s Sunday School in Lexington and had been his “body servant” during the Civil War.
After the 1959 church fire, the “Stonewall” Jackson window was salvaged, repaired, and reinstalled in the new church. The congregation debated the merits of honoring a Confederate general in a Black church. However, long-time parishioners wanted to respect and continue Rev. Downing’s admiration of the religious education Jackson had provided to his parents. The window remains a prominent part of the church interior today.
Blankenship, M. (2019). Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church: A church history. [Manuscript]. Gainsboro Branch Library Vertical Files, Roanoke, VA, United States.
Church history. (2018). Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church. https://www.5thavepresbychurchroanoke.com/church-history
Freis, R. (2017, December). The Rev. Lylburn Downing: beyond blue & gray. Discover: History and Heritage. The Roanoke Times.
Twenty-fifth anniversary–Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church. (1919). [Program]. Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church. Gainsboro Branch Library Vertical Files, Roanoke, VA, United States.