Detroit — When the Rev. Cecelia Greenbarr walked through the doors of a six-decades-old church on Detroit's east side, she was ready to embrace its mission and fire up the flock.
Instead, she led them down the street, four blocks away, the better to keep them from harm.
The danger wasn't missed prayers or failing to come to the aid of others. What forced the church's relocation was as old as life itself: mold.
So Saunders Memorial AME Church leaders uprooted the congregation of 175 to Mack Alive, a neighborhood community center on Fischer Street, Oct. 1 after mold that went unnoticed for years was found in the structure.
Services still are being held and its mission remains intact, Greenbarr said, but the new location is smaller and confined to one floor and one upstairs room, unlike Saunders Memorial, which is two stories and has a basement where Sunday school and prayer breakfast are held.
Congregants can't hold choir practices, work with their young adult ministry or plan events on their own time instead of Mack Alive's calendar.
"You can't do anything when you are confined to a space and we don't want to bring people into a hazardous one. We are grateful for Mack Alive, but we can not have full access, liberty to plan a youth outreach day, a concert or celebratory breakfast," Greenbarr said.
Even more, they've had to leave the location where Saunders Memorial has been for 67 years and has deep roots to the community. Daisy Tinsley, a trustee of the church who has been member since she was a little girl, said the neighborhood has a mixture of people including active parents and senior citizens, all who find solace in coming to church.
"There's not a lot of places that people can go to find help. Some people don't know how to fill out a resume or job application. Some just need to know there is someone here for them," Tinsley said.
Greenbarr said the first time she walked in to Saunders Memorial on Pennsylvania Street a month ago, she smelled the mold and couldn't imagine how congregants could be satisfied having services there.
"I was a fresh face, unlike others who were used to the smell," Greenbarr said. "We called the city and didn't receive a response. One of the members who works for the city couldn't even hear back."
The African Methodist Episcopal church has been on Pennsylvania Street since opening in 1950.
Representatives for the Detroit Health Department declined to comment, referring questions to the city's Building, Safety Engineering and Environmental Department.
Greenbarr hired a specialist, microbiologist Mark Banner to examine the building. He took eight samples on Aug.19 and concluded the building was uninhabitable because of the mold.
"He said this is so bad, anyone with a compromised immune system should not be in the building," Greenbarr said.
The mold in the basement of the church likely was caused by multiple sewage backups, said Tinsley.
"The water cracked and bent up the floorboards when we had a backup," said Tinsley. "We used the basement for Sunday school, prayer breakfast and social church events."
The Detroit Water and Sewage Department said if the source of the mold is identified as a sewage problem and it is a public line, the department would make repairs.
"They could also possibly have a plumbing leak," said Bryan Peckinpaugh from the water department. "From the description, it sounds like the issue is on the private side, but to double check, we’ll come out and inspect the city side of it."
Tinsley, 58, lives on Pennsylvania and has been coming to the church since she was a little girl.
She said mold and water problems are common issues in the area and with older churches in Detroit. Tinsley said a next-door church, "The Temple of God Christian Center," closed because of a water and sewage problem.
BSEED and Detroit Health Department were unable to provide information on how many older buildings have mold problems; BSEED said they don't receive many complaints.
Conditions that could result in mold include deteriorating roofs, windows, walls and water sources inside a building, all conditions reviewed during inspections, said Eric B. Johnson, Chief of Property Maintenance and Code Administration for BSEED.
The congregation has downsized to fit on the first floor Mack Alive, founded by former Detroit City councilwoman Alberta Tinsley Talabi, while they reach out for help to fix the building.
Detroit News contacts to the city did not resolve the issue of who has jurisdiction over the church but were able to bring the problem to the city's attention.
Tinsley said she was "totally shocked" when more than one inspector from BSEED arrived at their chained door on Thursday. As of Friday, they are waiting to hear from inspectors on the report and what violations the building might face.
"The church members need to understand that it's just temporary until we can fix the problem," Tinsley said.