Convent Avenue Baptist Church was founded on February 4,
1942 by Dr. John W. Saunders, formerly pastor of the Walker
Memorial Baptist Church. Two years earlier, Dr. Saunders,
already in his seventies, had formed a group known as the
“Kingdom Builders.” The Kingdom Builders held
services in the former Congress Casino and the old Baptist
Temple in Harlem.
The Kingdom Builders, with a $50,000 mortgage, purchased
the sanctuary of the former Washington Heights Baptist Church
and on February 4, 1942, they Kingdom Builders walked up 145th
Street to occupy what is now the Convent Avenue Baptist Church.
Howard Ruthus Mann became the Church’s Minister of Music
and served in that role for 42 years. Professor Mann started
what continues to be a hallmark of worship at Convent, an
extraordinary ministry of music rivaled by few churches anywhere.
The church now has six musical choirs, plus a spoken word
Scripture Choir called the Living Word Ministry.
Membership flourished and the church retired and burned the
$50,000 mortgage after only three years and three months.
Rev. Saunders established the J.W. Saunders Youth Center,
a day nursery to assist young parents, scouting programs,
vacation bible school, release-time classes and the Junior
Church. Under his leadership, the church acquired three townhouses
– 418 W. 145th Street, 354 and 356 Convent Avenue.
In 1955, Dr. Saunders suffered a debilitating stroke that
curtailed his active leadership. Rev. Mannie L. Wilson served
as interim pastor for the next five years. After a faithful
struggle, Rev. Saunders died in February, 1961 at the age
of 92. Three months later the church called Rev. Wilson as
the second pastor of the Convent Avenue Baptist Church.
The church continued to grow under Rev. Wilson, especially
its Sunday Church School which grew to serve 1500 students.
The church membership grew to 3000. With this strong base,
the church purchased 425 W. 144th Street, a large six-story
structure that now serves as the John W. Saunders Education
Building. The church also purchased two more townhouses, 402
West 145th Street and 348 Convent Avenue.
Rev. Wilson was active in the larger Harlem community, the
nation and the world. To serve the growing Hispanic community
in Harlem, he helped organize the Washington Heights Spanish
Baptist Church and housed its worship in 354 Convent Avenue.
Convent was also instrumental in the birth and support of
local congregations, viz., Abundant Life and Powerhouse Ministry.
Under his leadership, the church organized the Hamilton Grange
Senior Citizens Center and the Boys and Girls Club of Harlem.
He served on the board of the Harlem YMCA.
Rev. Wilson was the first African-American Protestant to
preach in St. Patrick’s Cathedral and the first black
pastor to preach in the White House. He was a board member
of the Baptist World Alliance, Union Theological Seminary,
Lott Carey Foreign Mission Convention, the National Conference
of Black Church Men and the Southern Christian Leadership
Conference and American Baptist Churches (USA). He was the
first African-American to serve as president of the American
Baptist Churches (USA).
On the global front, Rev. Wilson led the church to support
mission work in Liberia, Nigeria and Guyana. In Guyana, there
is a chapel named in his honor.
From 1970 to 1982, Rev. Clarence P. Grant, assisted Rev.
Wilson as Minister of Christian Education and as pastor in
the Junior Church. He implemented the federal Harlem Juvenile
Diversion Program aimed at deterring youngsters from the justice
system, the Academic Achievement Center, the NYC/Convent Home
Attendant Program, the Harlem Restoration Project, the Harlem
Employment and Learning Project, Project Help for school drop
outs, the New York Vocational Exploration Program, the Food
Pantry, the John W. Saunders Group Home and the IMCR Dispute
Rev. Wilson died in 1982. The church called Rev. Grant as
the third pastor of the Convent Avenue Baptist Church. Under
his leadership the church completed the construction of the
M.L. Wilson Walkway that connects the sanctuary with the J.W.
Saunders Education Building. Later the church purchased lot
at 641 St. Nicholas Avenue which continues through to 144th
Street and Hamilton Terrace (see Appendix 3 for church properties).
The church also completed a restoration of its pews and its
pipe organ. The pipe organ restoration is the largest installation
of its type in any African-American church. Rev. Grant started
Chapel at the Crossroads, a weekly service at noon each Wednesday,
followed by the Pastor’s Bible Study. He founded the
Bettie B. Wilson Learning Center and the JW Saunders Scholarship
Fund that assist young church members with college tuition.
Rev. Grant was also an ardent leader in the successful fight
to repeal the Rockefeller Drug Laws.
Convent Avenue Baptist Church is known as the home of the
Baptist Ministers Conference of Greater New York and Vicinity.
Each Monday ministers from all over the Tri-State area gather
at the church for their weekly meeting, including the prestigious
Martin Luther King, Jr. service each year in January. The
church also provides administrative office space for this
In May, 2005 Rev. Grant went home to the Lord leaving the
church another great legacy of service to God. I Corinthians
3:6 (paraphrased) reminds us that “One man plants, another
waters, but God gives the increase”.
The church proudly welcomed Rev. Dr. Jesse T. Williams, Jr.
to be the fourth pastor in April, 2007. Dr. Williams was licensed
to preach the Gospel in June 1983 at the Mount Carmel Missionary
Baptist Church, Topeka, Kansas and was ordained to the Gospel
Ministry in December 1990 at the West Side Baptist Church,
St. Louis, Missouri. Prior to accepting the call from Convent
Avenue, Dr. Williams served 16 years as Pastor of the historic
Washington Tabernacle Baptist Church of St. Louis, Missouri.
Dr. Williams’ ministry is guided by this spiritual principle
of reconciliation and is evidenced by the fruits of his labor
in preparation and service.
It is therefore not surprising and quite exciting to acknowledge
and highlight that under Dr. Williams’ pastoral leadership
the Convent Avenue Church Family has significantly increased
in membership, worship attendance, and tithes and offering
commitments. Pastor Williams has instituted the partaking
of Communion during the First Sunday 8:00 a.m. and 11:00 a.m.
worship services as an addition to the 5:00 p.m. Communion
Celebration Service. He ordained two ministers, licensed three
ministers and ordained four deacons. He initiated the hiring
of an Executive Minister and an Executive Assistant to the
Senior Pastor, as well as our new Minister of Children &
Youth, and facilitated the first leadership retreat with the
Official Boards. Pastor Williams has developed a new church
motto and initiated the development of the church logo that
is part of the revitalized Convent Church website. He also
introduced the First ever Annual Report. Rev. Dr. Williams
has also initiated the restructuring of the New Members Training
Classes and Curriculum. As a visionary, who understands the
plethora of societal needs, Rev. Dr. Williams is constantly
seeking the face of God for wisdom, guidance, direction and
discernment in spiritually leading and effecting holistic
change not only for the Convent Avenue Church family but the
Harlem Community at large. He continues the legacy of Convent
Avenue Baptist Church.