By Alison Bitterly
AFTER MANY YEARS of tireless effort on the part of community members and volunteers, the restoration of Fair Haven’s Fisk Chapel is close to completion.
The historic church has long been a focus of the Fair Haven Historical Association, acknowledged for its special significance to the town and in particular to its African American residents.
And although there is still some work to be done, Fair Haven residents are celebrating the remarkable progress that has been made on restoring the once dilapidated building.
Fisk Chapel, originally located on Browns Lane, was built in 1858 and known as the AME Bethel Chapel. Unfortunately, the building burned down in a fire shortly after; it was rebuilt years later thanks to the efforts of General Clinton B. Fisk, a summer resident who had been one of Lincoln’s officers during the Civil War. Fisk donated $3000 to build a Methodist church in an area where many of Fair Haven’s black citizens lived. When the chapel was completed in 1882, it was dedicated to Fisk.
According to former Fair Haven and
historian Timothy J. McMahon (now deceased), from 1890 into the 1940s, Fisk Chapel was the scene of an annual Emancipation celebration that featured the reading of President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, which officially ended slavery.
The Fisk Chapel became central to the Fair Haven area’s African American community for generations to follow. Although the congregation eventually outgrew the chapel space, the building itself was donated to the Borough of Fair Haven in 1975 and moved to its present location on Cedar Avenue.
The difficulty of such a move proved severely detrimental to the upkeep of the building; rust and decay set in, and many council members even suggested that the chapel be demolished. Thankfully, the Historic Association of Fair Haven, formed in 1995, stepped in to preserve the 19th century character of the building. Fisk Chapel, which also became known as Bicentennial Hall, was added to the Fair Haven Community Appeals list and a trust fund was established to raise money for its preservation and reconstruction.
For the past thirteen years, Patricia Drummond has been to go-to individual on matters of Fisk Chapel. As President of the Fair Haven Historical Society, she has overseen the work that has gone into the recent chapel restoration. However, as Drummond says, “there were many other people who worked tirelessly to raise money for the cause”. Specifically, Drummond acknowledged Borough Councilwoman Drew Dunigan, Director of the Monmouth County Historic Commission Randall Gabrielan, Councilwoman Wendy Jones, Representative Rush Holt, and Fair Haven Mayor Michael Halfacre. The project is also indebted to all of the Fair Haven Historical Association members as well as the local businesses that donated goods to various auctions.
Now that Fisk Chapel, or Bicentennial Hall, is once again in functioning shape, it will be used for meetings of local organizations (such as Garden Club and Scout groups) and cultural events. Inquiries are even being made already about booking the chapel for weddings. While the kitchen and bathroom floors still need some work, the Historical Association continues to move forward towards completing the massive project they undertook years ago.
Perhaps the greatest achievement of the Fisk Chapel renovation has been the Historical Association’s ability to keep alive an appreciation for the church’s significance to the Fair Haven community. As Pat Drummond says: “The preserved and restored chapel will stand as a reminder to the residents of an important time in the history of Fair Haven, especially for its African American community. It served as a center of their life during a period of segregation, Jim Crow laws, and separate schools for whites and blacks”.