Iowa Writes

DIANA PENNY
Biddy: A Childhood Memory


Daddy, who was pastor of Mt. Pisgah African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church at Chester, Illinois, hosted a religious radio broadcast from station KSGM in Ste. Genevieve, Missouri. With the entire family in tow, he would cross the Mississippi River at Chester, our home, and travel to the station every weekend, either to tape our service or to do a live broadcast from Ste. Genevieve. On our way to and from the radio station, we had to pass through the small hamlet of St. Mary. One day, stopping for gas in St. Mary, Daddy noticed the presence of African Americans in the town and inquired about them. As it turned out, there was a small, impoverished black community situated on the town's mud flats, part of a large flood plain. This area contained several shotgun bungalows and a small Baptist church along a dusty, unpaved road. The residents of this neighborhood expressed interest in meeting Daddy and his family, so the local black Baptist pastor invited him to be guest speaker one Sunday, and we all dined with the pastor and his congregation afterward. All the town's blacks lived on the flats--except one.

Daddy, who was pastor of Mt. Pisgah African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church at Chester, Illinois, hosted a religious radio broadcast from station KSGM in Ste. Genevieve, Missouri. With the entire family in tow, he would cross the Mississippi River at Chester, our home, and travel to the station every weekend, either to tape our service or to do a live broadcast from Ste. Genevieve. On our way to and from the radio station, we had to pass through the small hamlet of St. Mary. One day, stopping for gas in St. Mary, Daddy noticed the presence of African Americans in the town and inquired about them. As it turned out, there was a small, impoverished black community situated on the town's mud flats, part of a large flood plain. This area contained several shotgun bungalows and a small Baptist church along a dusty, unpaved road. The residents of this neighborhood expressed interest in meeting Daddy and his family, so the local black Baptist pastor invited him to be guest speaker one Sunday, and we all dined with the pastor and his congregation afterward. All the town's blacks lived on the flats--except one.

Members of this community told us about a lady whom all townspeople knew as Aunt Biddy. Biddy, who had been a lifelong member of the AME Church, lived alone in a house situated halfway up a wooded hillside across the highway, accessible via a winding, graveled drive. We decided to call on her and introduce ourselves. A tall and stately lady with silver braids, bent only slightly by the weight of her years, greeted us on her veranda. Having been born a slave, she was now well past her ninetieth birthday. Although her vision was heavily obscured by cataracts, she was independent and moved about easily, if a bit slowly.

Biddy, as her congregation's only surviving member, told us about her church and led us further up the hillside along a footpath through the woods to a clearing, which contained a tiny AME church of weathered clapboard. The hinges of the church's door creaked as Biddy opened it and invited us inside for a tour. Once inside, we saw backless wooden benches and a potbellied wood-burning stove standing at one side of the sanctuary just beyond the front row of benches. Although many years had passed since a pastor had last been assigned to her church, Biddy visited it weekly with broom, mop, and bucket to keep it clean and say a prayer or two. On this day, we prayed with her. Daddy assured her that the spirit of God had remained present in her little house of worship despite the long absence of a preacher.

A few weeks later, having obtained permission from the appropriate AME Church authorities serving the Fifth Episcopal District, Daddy, accompanied by Mama, all six of us children, a fellow AME pastor from nearby Murphysboro, Illinois, his family, and visitors from the aforementioned Baptist church, conducted a Sunday afternoon service, filling Biddy's humble sanctuary with the joy of the Lord. The river of tears, flowing freely from her clouded eyes, bore ample witness to the immense joy she experienced that afternoon. As the Christmas season approached, Daddy would take us children back to St. Mary again and again to sing carols to Aunt Biddy.

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Since 2006, Iowa Writes has featured the work of Iowa-identified writers (whether they have Iowa roots or live here now) and work published by Iowa journals and publishers on The Daily Palette. Iowa Writes features poetry, fiction, or nonfiction twice a week on the Palette.

In November of 2008, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designated Iowa City, Iowa, the world's third City of Literature, making the community part of the UNESCO Creative Cities Network.

Iowa City has joined Edinburgh, Scotland and Melbourne, Australia as UNESCO Cities of Literature.

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DIANA PENNY

Dianna Penny was born in St. Louis and grew up in downstate Illinois. She completed high school in Muscatine, Iowa, and earned a B.A. in art at the University of Iowa.

This page was first displayed
on February 24, 2006

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