Photo by Luigi Ciuffetelli
Rev. Vincent Oliver and his congregation embrace its church building’s deep roots as the former heart of Wilmington’s Ukrainian culture.
New Calvary Baptist Church purchased the former St. Nicholas Ukrainian Catholic Church in Wilmington back in 1969, but it wasn’t until recently that the Rev. Vincent Oliver and his congregation realized what a historical treasure it was.
Founded in 1903 and constructed in 1909, St. Nicholas Parish was created by a group of Ukrainian immigrants who wanted their own church to maintain their religious and ethnic identity. Several traditional features can still be admired within the structure—a tin ceiling retaining its original finish with a Victorian floral patterning; a large central cupola and two smaller flanking cupolas that represent the Holy Trinity; and the central chandelier, a characteristic feature of Ukrainian Catholic churches.
The transition from Ukrainian Catholic church to a Black Baptist one came amid tumultuous times. At the height of urban flight, white people across the United States were moving out of cities and into the suburbs. After Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in 1968, housing became an even greater struggle for the Black community, and New Calvary was looking to escape a wave of riots on Wilmington’s east side. At the same time, St. Nicholas was looking to expand to serve its growing congregation. They built a new location in north Wilmington, where many of its parishioners had already relocated. St. Nicholas moved to their own new building on West Lea Boulevard, which allowed New Calvary to purchase and move into the newly vacated building at the corner of South Heald and Pearl streets in Southbridge/South Wilmington for just $35,000.
Decades later, New Calvary’s research into the building’s rich history began when Edythe Pridgen joined the church in 2011. Her natural curiosity as a former journalist was piqued when Oliver’s wife, Veronica, mentioned the church’s origins.
“She started explaining to me about the building, and that this was a Ukrainian Catholic church,” Pridgen recalls. “I like to do research. I got really excited about it. I just was talking about it, but Michelle [Harris-Pritchett] really took the ball and started organizing us to get together.”
Harris-Pritchett, another member of New Calvary’s research team, admits that they had no idea where to start, but they were dedicated to doing whatever it took to uncover the building’s history.
With the help of Wilmington city planners and a team from the Center for Historic Architecture and Design at the University of Delaware, Harris-Pritchett, Pridgen and the Olivers began to dig deeper into the history of the structural pieces that make up the church, how the sanctuary was put together and some of the materials that were used.
The two-year process forming the tedious application was long and hard, but certainly paid off.
“There were no rewrites in it,” Pridgen says. “No changes, no objections. It went right through.”
The application passed through the local Wilmington Design Review and Preservation Commission, then moved to the State Historic Preservation Office’s Delaware State Review Board. Finally, it was approved by the National Register of Historic Places in Washington, D.C. It was officially listed on January 26, 2021.
The biggest step in the research journey involved reaching out to members of the old St. Nick’s. Oliver invited several original parishioners to a luncheon to share their stories. Despite language barriers, a strong connection was formed.
“Even though we came from different backgrounds, we didn’t necessarily look the same and we had different cultures… when it was all said and done, it worked,” Harris-Pritchett says.
The parish still holds liturgies in Ukrainian. Pre-pandemic, a 9 a.m. service was held entirely in Ukrainian, followed by an English service at 11 a.m. Now, the parish has a combined liturgy at 10 a.m. with long prayers done in Ukrainian and an English sermon.
Mark Pryslak, a St. Nicholas council member, says about 50 members attend their liturgy and several others tune in to a Facebook livestream. Most speak fluent Ukrainian.
“The younger generations, parents between the ages of 35 and 50, know the language,” Pryslak says. “And kids too, 8- and 9-year-olds, can speak Ukrainian so well. The language is an important part of the culture.”
The best and most important information about St. Nick’s came from those original parishioners, who provided New Calvary with photos of parents and family members who attended the church in its early years, along with their stories.
“The beauty of this is that the people are still here,” Harris-Pritchett says. “They were willing to really share the story and that is part of this whole journey, too. You’re hearing it from a living historian.”
Previous members shared their meaningful connections to the church. Oliver recalls one woman who grew up next door to St. Nick’s, where she was a parishioner, and she would often come to visit during his office hours to see how the place was changing.
“One of her wishes was that her home would become the property of the church,” Oliver says. “That’s how that house next to the parking lot became our church house for offices and meeting rooms.”
Now that the listing is official, the work continues. New Calvary’s research committee meets every other week to plan and gather estimates for its various restoration and renovation projects. Its first priority is restoring the three cupolas, symbolic of the Ukrainian faith. Veronica Oliver also notes that windows—originally painted green and white—were previously replaced because they were leaking. They did manage, however, to salvage the original frames.
“I think it is important to do all that we can to restore it to its historical glory,” Harris-Pritchett says. “I think that this represents a beacon of hope and opportunity and religious freedom for people.”
New Calvary hopes to extend the love they felt through old stories to new members and visitors who come to retrace their heritage in Wilmington.
“We want to leave something to the congregation coming behind us,” Oliver says. “A legacy.”