Calvary Baptist Church traces its beginning in 1895 to a small mission church called Mt. Olive Baptist when the black population of Milwaukee was 551. Rev. J.D. Odom had attempted to organize a church prior to 1895, but was unsuccessful. Thus, Alexander W. Herron, Thomas L. Jackson, and Alfred Copeland organized Mt. Olive Baptist, the first Black Baptist church in Milwaukee. The congregation moved to 227 Seventh Street and called Rev. J. D. Odom, in 1897 to be the first pastor. Established in 1895 as Mt. Olive Baptist Church, Rev. George J. Fox was pastor when the name was legally changed to Calvary Baptist Church on August 26, 1912 due to legal difficulties with taxes and related issues. In 1913 Calvary relocated to 414 W. Cherry Street. Circumstances for Calvary Baptist Church greatly improved and in 1922, the pastor and members purchased the edifice at 1727 N. 4th Street and the adjacent home at 1737 N. 4th Street for the parsonage.
By 1965, the membership of Calvary had grown to over 1,000 members, and more space was needed, even though an annex had been added. Under Rev. Dr. Melvin James Battle, the mortgages had been liquidated on the church building, the parsonage, and the annex to the church; therefore preparations were being made to build a larger edifice. Rev. Walter B. Hoard was the pastor when the groundbreaking took place on August 3, 1969, and the congregation moved to the new church facility at 2959 N. Teutonia Avenue in 1970. During Rev. Dr. Leary’s pastorate, the mortgage was burned and an elevator was installed.
Pastors of Calvary who had extended lengths of service are Rev. S. J. Williams (1923-1934); Rev. Dr. Melvin James Battle (1937-1965); Rev. Walter B. Hoard (1965-1969); Rev. Roy B. Nabors (1970-1977); and Rev. Dr. James E. Leary (1983-2000). Each of these pastors expected leaders to be spiritually grounded and they believed in a well-trained and engaged laity and the orderly administration of church affairs. Rev. Battle is on record as holding the first Calvary Convention, organized to train members and his successors have continued leadership training. An extension of training for members and fellowship with other churches included attendance at annual denominational local, regional and national conventions.
As expected, each pastor has left an indelible imprint on how the Gospel is spread and how Calvary ministers to its members and the community. Calvary, its pastors and members have been consistently involved in the community and community outreach missions. A major community outreach initiative, proposed by Rev. Roy B. Nabors and approved by the Church, was to respond to the need for quality, affordable housing for the elderly in the community. Calvary members approved the formation of Calvary Housing Development, Ltd., led by Walter Johnson, Susie B. Ellis, Fairbanks Cooper and others, now operates three housing projects for the elderly in the community. Calvary became one of the sites for a Milwaukee Public Schools Headstart Program for several years and sponsored its own afterschool tutorial program. In cooperation with local food pantries and members who volunteered, Calvary began a community food program and later a meal program, which still continues. American Baptist Women Ministries expanded outreach through women organized into Circles. The Circles provided fellowship for the women and the opportunity for both local and foreign mission and outreach services on behalf of Calvary Baptist Church.
The youth of Calvary have been active serving in their own youth group and other groups such Youth Choir, Children’s Choir, Youth Ushers and Vacation Bible School. Youth group leaders and parents have organized youth retreats and other opportunities for fellowship. The youth of Calvary were particularly active in the marches for Open Housing in Milwaukee. Calvary youth are eligible and receive scholarships from the Church to attend two-year and four-year colleges. Calvary members, Brenda and Mark Purnell, established The Calvary Endowment Fund for Youth and Children’s programs and the interest income has funded a variety of activities, including a college tour, the 2007 and 2008 Summer Day Camp, and continues to underwrite a portion of the Summer Enrichment Camp.
In addition to regular Sunday Worship services, revivals and Bible Study, Calvary pastors and members worked together on special days, some of which are still part of Calvary programs. Annual Days, such as Men’s Day, Women’s Day, Youth Day, Children’s Day and observance of Mother’s Day provided opportunities for fellowship; however, Women’s Day and Men’s Day were also for fundraising to support the work of the church. The fundraising component was discontinued under Rev. Dr. Leary, who led an aggressive tithing program and urged members to support the church with their tithes and offerings.
The Annual Easter and Christmas cantatas were a high point in the Church year. The Senior Choir, sang the cantatas for many years, and were joined in later years by the other choirs of Calvary as well as members from other churches. Marion Bailey, Christine Byrd Kiff, Tremerell Hunter, Shirley Brockenborough, Ella Washington and Judith Baity were the directors and musicians for the cantatas. Calvary choirs have been blessed to perform “Mary’s Story,” a Christmas cantata on two occasions and “Vision of Paul,” an Easter cantata, both of which were written and composed by Director of Music, Mrs. Judith Baity.
Calvary has embraced the leadership of women in the church in all areas of service, except the Board of Deacons (until 2015). Mrs. Ardie Halyard, Mrs. Susie B. Ellis and Mrs. Frances Jefferson were the first women to serve on the Board of Trustees. Rev. Dr. Eleanor Cardenas was the first woman to be ordained a minister at Calvary and Rev. Dr. Trinnette McCray became the first woman to serve as a salaried Minister of Christian Education. Mrs. Judith Baity became the first full-time, salaried Director of Music.
As an extension of their personal commitment to the community, the pastors and members have served on boards of such organizations as the YMCA and the NAACP, of which Calvary is a member. Calvary members, Ardie Halyard and Thomas Malone later served as presidents of the local NAACP. Mrs. Ardie Halyard and Mr. Wilbur Halyard founded Columbia Savings and Loan and Rev. Walter B. Hoard was one of the founding members of the North Milwaukee State Bank. Rev. Roy B. Nabors continued to encourage members to become more active in community outreach and missions. Rev. Nabors served as alderman of Milwaukee’s 6th Aldermanic District during a portion of his ministry at Calvary. Rev. Dr. James E. Leary was a founding member and the first president of MICAH (Milwaukee Inner Churches Allied for Hope).
Calvary has been affiliated with American Baptist Churches/USA and ABC/USA of Wisconsin since the early 1900’s. The pastor and members are actively involved with the women’s, men’s and other ministries of both groups and have often provided leadership. Rev. Dr. Trinette V. McCray has served as the national president of ABC/USA. Susie B. Ellis, Robert Prince, Rev. Dr. James E. Leary, and Venora McKinney, all members of Calvary, have each served as president of ABC/USA of Wisconsin. Other members were active participants in American Baptist Women of Wisconsin, American Baptist Men and ABC/USA, as well as individual members who served on other committees of Wisconsin and ABC/USA. During his leadership at Calvary, Rev. S. J. Williams, with the help of Rev. Washington of Madison, Rev. Able of Racine, and Rev. Brown of Beloit, organized the Wisconsin Baptist State Convention (affiliated with the National Baptist Convention).
Rev. John Richard Walton, Jr. was called to lead Calvary Baptist Church in 2002, making his pastorate of fourteen years to date, among the longest. His love of the Lord, his youth and forward-thinking brought a heightened level of energy and enthusiasm to the membership and the long term vision of Calvary Baptist Church.
The Rev. Dr. John R. Walton, Jr. and Mrs. Lorrie Craig Walton have been Pastor and First Lady of Calvary since March 1, 2002. The two have led Calvary in a successful transition to a 21st Century style of ministry, while honoring historical traditions. Over the years, Calvary Baptist Church has prayerfully and diligently, “Transformed the Community for Christ,” in real and relevant ways inside and outside of the church. Within the church, God blessed Dr. Walton to:
- oversee the successful building project of the enlargement and renovation of the pastor and administrative assistant offices
- develop annual leadership conferences to train and disciple the leadership of the church to move from being board driven to being ministry driven
- lead the most comprehensive revision and rewriting of the church by-laws in the history of the church
- oversee the development of the church’s 1st website
- lead and oversee the acquisition and purchase of surrounding properties and demolition of the Nevels building in preparation for future building projects
- place Calvary’s weekly broadcast on JOY1340
- train and ordain the first female deacons (July 2015) in the history of Calvary
Since 2002 when Pastor Walton commenced his journey of pastor and people working together, Calvary has “gone green” by incorporating screens for teaching and worship, developed, maintained, and grown several successful ministries that have enhanced the church and its effectiveness inside and outside of the church edifice. New ministries during Pastor Walton’s tenure include:
- Armor Bearer’s Ministry
- Greeter’s Ministry
- Mildred Leigh-Gold Health Ministry
- Church Security Ministry
- Fine Arts Ministry that includes the Selah Praise Dance Team, Wheel in the Middle of the Wheel Flag Ministry, Genesis Dance Ministry
In addition, Calvary has grown to enlarge the missions ministry to include an outreach ministry to the community that now has a partnership with Feeding America that helps Calvary continue their tradition of a community outreach dinner every 4th Saturday and now includes a community outreach breakfast every 3rd Sunday. Under Pastor Walton’s leadership, Calvary Baptist Church has created and operated the Calvary Summer Day Camp, now the Calvary Enrichment Camp, in July of 2007. Established by Mrs. Venora McKinney and presently led by Mrs. Walton, the Calvary Enrichment Camp, now planning its 10th camp program, trains and employs almost twenty youth from the city of Milwaukee and surrounding suburbs, enrolls over sixty children from across the city, and partners with other local churches.
Within the Community, Pastor Walton has led Calvary to develop community partnerships and has assumed leading roles with the:
- United Way Teen Pregnancy Prevention Oversight Committee
- Above the Clouds, HeartLove Place
- The Halo Project with Marquette University
- PAWS for Peace
- Milwaukee Christian Center, and the
- Interfaith Conference of Greater Milwaukee, Inc. where he represents the American Baptist Churches of Wisconsin as a cabinet member, and in 2014 was elected to also serve on the Executive Committee.
Continuing the social justice legacy of his immediate predecessor, Rev. Dr. James Leary, under the leadership of Pastor Walton, Calvary remains active in MICAH where he serves actively on the Religious Leaders’ Caucus. This past year, Pastor Walton had Calvary host a political candidates forum where both gubernatorial candidates and other local politicians were invited, and the Democratic candidate Mary Burke attended and spoke at the event.
Pastor Walton counts being with the members of Calvary from day to day, week to week, and from Sunday to Sunday, participating in and experiencing the ministry of preaching, teaching, pastoral care, and outreach ministry with them, as the greatest accomplishment of his time at Calvary. Pastor and people continue to move forward to serve and “Transform the Community for Christ,” for there is more work to be done.
One hundred twenty years, and pursuit of the Vision continues.