Greater Liberty Baptist Church, founded in 1853, is the tenth oldest black church in the city of New Orleans. The initial site was on the corner of Marais and Piety Streets.
At this time, Reverend A. Wyatte was the officiating pastor with a very small congregation. After the pastorate of Reverend Wyatte, Reverend Charles Shackey was appointed, and the church was moved to 1230 Desire Street. During this period, the church was experiencing difficult times about the assembly and the church faced a possible three-way split. However, Reverend Shackey was determined to hold on to God’s unchanging hand, and through his courageous leadership, he kept the church together until his death which is said to be 90 years of age.
The next minister which God called to Liberty Baptist was Reverend Henry Thomas who believed in strength and faith as the keys to prosperity. He was remembered by his motto: “Let us accept hardships, struggles, or whatever the burden to be carried and go forward with Christ.” During this time, many people would come to Liberty and attend Sunday school even though they were not official members of the church. Sunday school consisted of Catholic, Methodist, and Baptist denominations. All people were accepted by the church and enjoyed its loving environment (even though the shed-like building was a three-wall room with a potbelly stove and a stick propped up on one side of the wall to help keep the building from tumbling).
Because of this open policy, church members were invited to other churches, and the only means of transportation was an open paneled truck which belonged to Reverend Edward Riley, an assistant minister. This became a tradition at Liberty. Another tradition was a two-day wake service. In those days, Liberty believed that when a funeral took place, the body would lay in the church for two days. Everything else would cease, i.e., all church services and functions. The church did not fully understand that death should not stop all church activities. Reverend Thomas continued to work diligently in all areas of the church until his death. Unfortunately, the church was without a pastor for month, but a small group of seven people (Elizabeth Manigo, Mary Gaines, Margarette Washington, Mary Pascal, Alphonse Lee, Gertrude Humphrey, and Clara Woodis) preserved and kept the faith strong until God poured out His blessing unto them and brought Reverend Noah Copelin to the church.
When the church gained a new minister, it gained new members. During the month of April, 1930, Liberty Baptist changed its name to Greater Liberty Baptist Church. Reverend Copelin’s first assignment was to help cure the congregation of its past struggles. His motto was “With Christ to help us, we need never fail; we should be more courageous, with minds to work and not to shirk.” Reverend Copelin changed some of the traditions, such as the two-day wake service.
During this period, young people began to gravitate to Greater Liberty due to the fact that the early pioneers gave so faithfully and generously of their time. This church system was built on families and even today, descendants of pioneers are the original members. The pioneers knew how to keep the young people together. There was never a division between the young and the old, as a loving and caring relationship kept the church united. This bonding was not only practiced on Sundays, but everyday. Because of the love that the church provided, Reverend Copelin followed suit. He was remembered as a father-figure to all the youth. He played a significant role to the youngsters. He felt that children should be allowed to be children. He always had music for the children to dance to whenever there was a church picnic. He increased the membership and financial resources, and under his leadership, Greater Liberty Baptist Church also initiated the Usher Board, Deacons, Junior Deacons, and Choirs Number One and Two. Another ministry that he was proud of was the Loyalty Sextet, which was a traveling singing group. The group was organized by Maxine Foster and later supervised by Sarah Armstrong when Sister Foster moved to California. The participants were Audrey Richards, Minola Richards, Audrey Johnson, Annie Mae Palmer, Mattie Lee Johnson, and Josephine Richards. There were also church mothers: Mothers Gaines, Washington, Latoye, and Manigo. The roles of these women were to provide spiritual nourishment and to reprimand when needed.
Reverend Copelin led the church for 39 years until God called him home on May 8, 1969. The Reverend Marshall Carmbs was appointed Minister of Greater Liberty for one year and three months. Once gain, the church was without a leader until October 1971 when Reverend Melvin Clark was elected as pastor. During his pastorship, Greater Liberty’s loving environment appealed to Hollywood, California. The 1970 movie, “Hard Times,” which starred Charles Bronson and James Colburn, was filmed in New Orleans, and Greater Liberty was chosen to be in the movie. The church went through some cosmetic changes for the filming. The scene that took place showed the choir and congregation singing while James Colburn walks into the church to retrieve his business partner who happened to respect the Baptist Church. Afterwards, the church was restored to its original look. In 1977, under Reverend Clark’s leadership, the church went into its new edifice, and his pastorship lasted nine years thereafter.
In September of 1979, while attending the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, Reverend Calvin Wallace Woods, Jr. joined Greater Liberty under the leadership of Reverend Melvin Clark. In June of 1981, after Reverend Clark resigned, the deacons and members asked him to serve as the interim pastor. In December of 1981, they elected him as their pastor. The First District Missionary Baptist Association was called in to install him on January 15, 1982. Reverend Woods inherited $132,000.00 of debt on our current church, within seven years the church and all of their properties were debt free under his leadership. He turned his attention towards building up the body of Christ through evangelism, missions, worship, leadership development, Christian education, family ministries, radio ministry, and church administration. He motivated the members and leaders to become more active in the First District Baptist Association, Louisiana Baptist State Convention, National Baptist Convention, and the Louisiana Baptist Youth Encampment. Pastor Woods has increased involvement within the community by witnessing to people who live within the vicinity and going to local schools, colleges and universities. Under his leadership, over twenty-five ministries have been added to meet the needs of people within the church and the community. The transition from deacons to trustees took place under his leadership, therefore giving women an opportunity to serve in these key leadership positions. He also led the church by the power of the Holy Spirit to accept women in the ministry. The first female minister at the church was Shelia Benson Andrews. Under his leadership, the church gained nationwide recognition by former President George Bush for their Black Manhood Training Program. Because of his dedication and commitment to the family, the church has purchased six houses and two huge lots where we will break ground in the future for our 1.3 million dollar family life center.
Under the leadership of Pastor Woods, we established “The Spirit of Liberty Economic Development Corporation” in 1998 and “Greater Liberty Ministries” in 2000, both are 501C3 organizations. Their purposes are to help empower our community economically with jobs, housing, and businesses. A church website and other related ministries were added in 2006.
Greater Liberty Baptist Church is a product of a long line of courageous, committed and faithful people who gave their love and affection freely. Greater Liberty would not be what it is today if it were not for the seven strong Christian spirits that conquered defeat and opened the door for others to pass through. Greater Liberty must continue to hold strong and keep trusting in God and remember that prayer is the foundation of a church. The battle is not yet won! We’ve only just begun, but with God’s love and wisdom, we will overcome.
On August 29, 2005, Greater Liberty experienced the worst storm in its entire history. Hurricane Katrina caused severe flooding and damage to the sanctuary and the entire New Orleans community. Everything in the church and its properties were destroyed by flood waters, toxic mold, and wind damage. Members were displaced to various cities throughout Louisiana, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Maryland, Mississippi, New York, Tennessee, and Texas. For the first time history the Greater Liberty members were not able to worship at 1230 Desire Street location. Pastor Woods heard the clarion call of God to gather the broken and battered sheep and in March 2006, he returned from his displacement in Birmingham, Alabama and started having worship service at the Saint Mark’s Fourth Baptist Church, New Orleans, Louisiana, Pastor Robert Turner and worship services at the New Zion Baptist Church in Denham Springs, Louisiana, Pastor Leroy Taylor. With the help and leadership of the trustees, deacons, office staff, and the members, we were able to put our church building back together. A special thanks to Rev. Tommie Banks (Assistant to the pastor), Dr. Rochelle Dunham, Gerald Honore, Mary Riddle, Esther Lucas, and Paul Brown (trustees), and Harvey Banks, Feltus Carter, George Dupree, and Melvin Major (deacons), Constance Woods (first lady), Doris Kimble and Myra Fields (office staff), Corey and Randolph Thomas (musicians) and the choir and the ushers for a job well done. A special thanks to the remnant of members who remained faithful in giving their time, talents, and tithes in the midst of our recovery.
It was not until Sunday, November 5, 2006 that the members were able to return to a newly renovated, state-of-the art sanctuary dedicated to the Lord’s work. Thanks to the National Baptist Convention, USA, Inc, Louisiana Baptist State Convention, The Bethel Baptist Church, Tallahassee, Florida, the Bush-Clinton Katrina Fund committee, and others for giving us your financial and spiritual support.
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