Wilkerson Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Belleville is small, but enthusiastic.
Its 13 members have a full slate of activities planned for their 140th anniversary celebration beginning Tuesday.
"We all help each other," said the Rev. Dorothy Berry, 62, of East St. Louis, part-time pastor and full-time commercial biller for SSM Health Care. "We pitch in to make things successful. Wherever we're needed, we serve."
Berry isn't above doing secretarial work or cleaning the small, concrete-block church on 19th Street.
Members recently raised money for a new furnace and central air, which will keep preachers from needing ice packs in the hot summer.
"We're working on getting a new marquee," Berry said. "Someone stole the one we had. We came in one Sunday (in February), and it was gone."
Such challenges don't dampen spirits at Wilkerson Chapel, which was founded by a former slave in 1873.
"It's the fifth-oldest church in the city of Belleville and the oldest black church," said the Rev. Virginia Berry Howlett, Dorothy's sister-in-law.
Howlett, 77, of Belleville, is a social worker for Big Brothers Big Sisters of Southwestern Illinois.
She pastored at Wilkerson from 1993 to 2009. Before that, her brother, the Rev. Carl Berry, had the job.
Howlett describes the church as one that embraces Christian values, provides a strong Biblical foundation and makes members feel like family.
"People can come and socialize and get the love that they need, no matter what is going on in their lives," she said. "I always say, 'It's a place where you can pray it through.'"
The Rev. Emanuel Wilkerson founded three black churches under the auspices of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1873, eight years after the Civil War ended.
The one in Greenville closed, but those in Belleville and Collinsville soldiered on through the years. Carl Berry now serves as pastor in Collinsville.
The first Wilkerson Chapel in Belleville was a log structure that stood at Douglas and East D streets. It burned in an accidental fire.
"It used to be a schoolhouse (for black children during the week)," said the late Amanda Kemp, a church secretary interviewed for a 1985 article in the News-Democrat. "My mother told me she went to school there."
The concrete-block church was built at Roosevelt and 19th streets in 1950. Kemp recalled a time when it boasted more than 100 members.
In recent years, the church has renovated bathrooms, replaced doors and bought computer equipment. Dorothy Berry hopes to build a parking lot and get new chairs for the sanctuary.
"(The pews are) old, and they're falling apart," she said. "So we're going to do a fundraiser, and ask people to pledge a chair."
The theme of the 140th anniversary celebration is "A Living Faith in Every Footstep." Activities will include services with guest preachers and gospel music, a banquet and parade.
Members see the celebration as a way to show off their historic little church.
"The people are loving, kind, receptive and open," Berry said. "They're just good people."
At a glance
What: Wilkerson Chapel's 140th anniversary
Where: 640 S. 19th St. in Belleville, unless otherwise noted
April 2: Opening service at 7 p.m. with the Rev. Charisse Woods-Burrel of Quinn Chapel African Methodist Church
April 3: Service at 7 p.m. with the Rev. Levi R. King of Gateway Area Bible Fellowship Apostolic Church
April 4: Service at 7 p.m. with the Rev. Ednorleatha Long of the Christian Growth Center
April 5: Banquet at 6 p.m. with Senior Bishop John Richard Bryant of the African Methodist Episcopal Church (at National Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows)
April 6: Richard Allen Day Parade at noon, "A Taste of the Past" from 1 to 3:30 p.m. and "Old-Time Gospel Hour Preaching and Singing" at 4 p.m.
April 7: Closing service at 4 p.m. with the Rev. John Herring
Cost: $35 for banquet; $15 for children 12 and under
Information: Call the Rev. Virginia Howlett at 618-257-1143 or 618-803-8298