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Happy to Be Here: Buckingham Mountain’s special place


It will be mighty cold on Buckingham Mountain on Christmas Eve but that won’t stop the crowd expected at Mount Gilead, the little church where escaped slaves once prayed.

David Gale and a quartet of young people, Charlie dell’orefice, Rachel dell’orefice, Ethan Dobbins and Courtney Woolslayer will sing. The Rev. Wakaki Thompson, pastor of Macedonia Baptist Church of Newtown will preach and Deacon Harold Vereen will be worship leader.

The church’s website describes the setting: “Nestled along one of the many twists and turns of Holicong Road, tiny Mount Gilead Community Church perches on Buckingham Mountain, a silent witness to history.

“This small stone church and its adjacent cemetery are beloved by local residents and historians, who cherish what it means to the community.”

Buckingham Mountain, filled with caves and intimidating stone outcroppings, was a refuge for escaped slaves and freed Blacks in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Encouraged by local Quakers, they built cabins in the mountain’s secluded woods.

One of the residents, Benjamin “Big Ben” Jones, a man of “massive stature,” had escaped from Maryland. One day in 1844, he was chopping wood on a local farm, when he was attacked and injured by a group of men including his former master. Although Ben struggled, he was overcome and transported to a slave prison, where he was listed for sale at $700. Quakers raised the funds to buy Ben’s freedom and he returned to Buckingham Mountain but he did not recover from injuries from the attack. He died in the Bucks County Almshouse.

Circuit-riding ministers of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) faith visited the residents of the Buckingham Mountain settlement as it grew. By 1822, the congregation had 15 families, probably meeting in their homes. By 1834, the congregation had become large enough to build Mount Gilead, a log structure measuring 32 feet by 52 feet, one room at ground level and a partial basement. Among the many AME churches scattered throughout Bucks County, Mount Gilead is one of the oldest

“In 1852, the congregation rebuilt Mount Gilead out of rose quartz and iron-veined stones quarried from the mountaintop. They made the structure slightly larger and covered the stones with stucco. Once the builders had finished, the church was dedicated on Nov. 20, 1853,” according to the history at That was well before the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation.

“Mount Gilead embodies the paradox of a thriving church that on one hand made no secret of its existence and on the other hand facilitated the highly clandestine Underground Railroad,” the history continues. “As if to illustrate this paradox, a fundraiser from 1863 was held on property belonging to the Trego family, known to historians as Underground Railroad conductors.

“The obvious problem with attempting to provide a detailed history of the Underground Railroad is that the activity necessarily had to be carried out in secret. After all, congregation members were sheltering runaway slaves on the very mountain where the church stands. The explanation may lie partly in the determination of local farmers to guard the route to the mountain from slave catchers.”

Regular services at the church ended in 1920 and the building deteriorated. Walter Lewis volunteered to be caretaker in 1936. By that time, the church had suffered greatly from neglect. with the help of the new Mount Gilead Association, he oversaw installation of a new roof, repair of many broken windows, plastering the interior and clearing the graveyard headstones, which were covered with weeds.

Margaret Johns, Alvin Peaker and Ernest Johns of Philadelphia, Mildred Hopkins of Forest Grove and Irene Case of Lambertville, N.J., were association members with Lewis as president. He maintained the church for at least 37 years, often dealing with vandalism.

According to the history, little has changed in the outside appearance of the church, although a vestibule was added to the front in approximately 1940. The stucco was removed in the 1950s and the stones were repointed by mason William Hopkins in the 1980s. The church remained unused until 1971, when William and Mildred Hopkins introduced an Easter Sunrise service. Three years later, they added a Memorial Service led by the Rev. Alberta Lee, a Black evangelist from Langhorne.

For some time, the Buckingham Township Community Association cared for the church. Today it is overseen by an operating board, with Harold Vereen, president, Norma Teat, treasurer, Phyllis Teat, secretary, and members Monique Jones, Leanne Yerkes, the Rev. David M. Jackson, and the Rev. Wakaki R. Thompson

Today the church has four services each year – Easter, Memorial Day, Thanksgiving and Christmas.

“It’s a church without a congregation,” Vereen said. “Almost everyone belongs to another church.” His goal, he said, “is to put the building in good repair.” He’s lined up Ed Stanojev as general contractor and a historical architect has done mapping for the cemetery and volunteers are working at restoring the headstones.

“The church has always suffered from lack of funds,” Vereen said. The organization is in the midst of a fundraising drive with a goal of $100,000 – $50,00 for the near future, Leanne Yerkes is leading the fundraising efforts.

This month, the board sent out a plea for help. “We are simply your friends and neighbors, asking for help so that generations to come can also appreciate this historic gem. Mount Gilead Church played such a vital role in helping Black slaves achieve freedom almost 200 years ago; now it is our turn to help Mount Gilead. Please help make this happen.”

Donations can be sent to Mount Gilead Church, 1940 Holicong Road, P.O. Box 284, Buckingham, Pa. 18912. The church’s website is

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