The amazing resilience of Handy ChapelJan 26, 2021 10:10AM ● By Michael Melneck
The oldest historically black church in Grand Junction
A safe haven
In 1883, Crawford deeded four lots at the corner of what is now White Avenue and Second Street to “the black citizens of the community.” The property was then “sold” to the black community for $1, to be used as a site for the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME), though there was never a known deed of transfer to the AME.
Congregants met and worshipped on the empty plot for nine years while they raised the $962.50 necessary to start construction, which began in 1892 and completed in 1893. While there was little affluence—if any—among those early worshippers, there was undoubtedly an overwhelming amount of tenacity and faith.
The location served as a church, cultural center and haven for blacks and others traveling across the country. Although the chapel has served three dominations—Holiness, Baptist and AME—there’s never been a membership requirement. All were welcome. Travelers might find lodging at the parsonage or at a rental property managed by the chapel, where rent might range from $25 to $40 per month. No one was turned away and no one was expressly charged.
One of the earliest pastors at Handy Chapel was Wilson Sheldon, whose 1901 photo is the only known record of his tenure there. Traveling preachers followed sporadically, and no one became an official “pastor” at Handy Chapel for many years.
It’s possible the chapel was named after Southern preacher William Handy. However, Josephine Dickey, the late caretaker of the property and chairperson of the Handy Chapel board, said the name signified “a hand reaching down to help someone else.” Also, the location was “handy” for black citizens to find.
The families that built it
Arguably, Handy Chapel’s real story is the story of Josephine and the families who came before her and gave life to the chapel. While Grand Junction quickly grew away from the original plot, the Handy Chapel developed a strong legacy of service and compassion, fostered over seven generations by the Taylor and Dickey families.
That involvement started in the 1850s when William and Ellen Washington Austin and William Carpenter helped secure the parcel for where the Handy Chapel still stands. In the 1870s, William Washington Taylor (Josephine Dickey’s grandfather by several “greats”) and his daughter, Lizzie, published and edited one of Utah’s principal black newspapers, which was also circulated in Colorado. Lizzie later became an ordained minister, and by 1938, she pastored at Handy Chapel. Josephine’s uncle, Reverend Booker Taylor, also ministered at the chapel from 1940 to 1960.
Josephine liked to run her hand over a brick wall at the chapel. “My great-grandfather probably laid those bricks down,” she said.
Harry Butler’s family likewise was a formative part of the chapel’s history. Butler was a prominent member of the community and one of the chapel’s most recent acting pastors, conducting Saturday services for Certain Place of the Seventh Day Adventist congregation.
The Taylor/Dickey family remained involved with the chapel over the generations, and it has them to credit for saving it from demolition.
In the 1970s, the Rocky Mountain Conference of the AME Church expelled Josephine, her daughter Helen, and all but three congregants from their positions. The AME then arranged to sell the chapel and its land to Far West Investors for $68,000. That is, until Josephine and her daughter sued the group. The women proved in court that no deed of transfer to the AME Church had ever been filed or recorded. The Mesa County District Court ruled in their favor, stating that the chapel belonged to the black community.
In 1983, the Colorado Court of Appeals upheld the lower court’s decision and suggested that the property be placed in a trust. Josephine was installed as the trust’s administrator.
While no one has questioned the chapel’s ownership since the 1983 decision, the Handy Chapel has proved to be resilient in other ways.
In 1994 the chapel was added to the National Register of Historic Places, which was also around when the building began to fall into disrepair. By 2011, Colorado Preservation, Inc. added the property to its list of “Most Endangered Places.” That naming raised awareness to the chapel’s plight, and grants from the Colorado Historical Society, the El Pomar Foundation, the State Historical Fund and the National Trust for Historic Preservation funded renovations and structural repairs.
Handy Chapel’s mission has always been to provide food, clothing and shelter to those in need. Though the membership now is small (and they aren’t meeting due to COVID), they still help anyone who comes through the Chapel’s doors.
As Josephine reportedly once said, “We’re not here for ourselves. We have to help other people…If we don’t contribute to our people and our country, we’re going to have to see God one day and He’s going to say, ‘What have you done?’”
Josephine’s daughter, Barbara Anderson, once objected to her mother being in the chapel alone.
“I’m never alone,” Anderson recalled her saying. “Jesus is always with me.”
Josephine was the chapel’s oldest and longest-serving caretaker until she passed in 2016. Anderson is now the acting chairperson for the Chapel’s board.
“What have you done?” It’s an understatement to say that Josephine, and the Handy Chapel, have done plenty.