The portrait, shot by a News Tribune photographer in 1999, shows four Tacoma African-American church patriarchs — four pastors who had shepherded their Hilltop churches for more than 40 years each at the time.
By the next year, one of the pastors, the Rev. Earnest L. Brazill, was dead. Two others, the Rev. Joseph A. Boles and Bishop Thomas L. Westbrook, died in the fall of 2013.
Now the fourth pastor shown in that photograph, Bishop Curtis E. Montgomery, is gone. And with his passing, an era has officially closed.
“He was the last of what I call the legacy,” said the Rev. Prentis Johnson, who became pastor of Greater Christ Temple Church when Montgomery retired seven years ago. “Tacoma, and especially the Hilltop, is in a better place because of them.”
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Montgomery, who guided his congregation through the civil rights struggles of the 1960s and the gang and drug warfare of the 1980s, died Tuesday morning after a brief illness, according to son John Montgomery. He was 82.
“We’re glad that he’s dancing with the angels,” John Montgomery said.
Curtis Montgomery started the Greater Christ Temple Church in 1959, carried it through the opening of a new building on the same South G Street location in 1978, and fulfilled his longtime vision for a $3 million youth center that went up across the street in 2004.
His congregation’s growing size and mission stood in contrast to its humble beginnings inside a rented old grocery store and cleaners. The church couldn’t afford to pay a full-time pastor in the early days, so Montgomery worked as a painter, a carpenter and a night maintenance worker at a downtown motel.
He retired in 2008 after nearly 50 years as the church’s pastor, but continued as Pacific Northwest regional bishop for his denomination, the Pentecostal Assemblies of the World, until last August.
“The greatest joy I have is to see a single life changed from a wayward direction to following Jesus Christ,” he said in a News Tribune interview at the time of his retirement. “It’s molding and shaping their lives to be greater citizens of this life and the world to come.”
Montgomery, like the three other pastors in the photograph, founded churches on the Hilltop in the 1950s.
“I think my dad would definitely put himself as nothing more than a humble servant,” John Montgomery said. “I think he was humbled to be associated with those other pastors. As the youngest of them, I know he looked up to them and admired them.
“He will now join the others (in heaven), and that will make for some interesting conversation.”
Curtis Montgomery was known for leading a lively Pentecostal worship style, including speaking in tongues. He was known as an exacting Bible teacher who gave pop quizzes. But most of all, he was known for showing love and compassion to all those around him.
“He was a wonderful man of God, he loved people, and he knew no strangers,” said Frances Thomas, the church’s administrative assistant whose ties to the Montgomery family go back to 1977.
Johnson, the church’s current pastor, said he knew Montgomery for 53 years, originally as a father figure. Johnson’s own father died when he was 7 years old.
“I am what I am today because of him,” Johnson said. “The bishop took me under his wing and basically mentored me and tutored me, as well as several young men the same age. He was a man of perfection. He said if you do anything, do it well. If you’re going to cut the grass, make it look the best it can.”
A native of Selma, Alabama, Montgomery settled in Tacoma with his wife, Elinor, in the mid-1950s after being drafted into the Army. His last stop was at Fort Lewis, where he served as a medic and cook.
Montgomery was not active in the civil rights demonstrations of the 1960s like other local African-American pastors such as Brazill. But Montgomery supported their work and helped his church members persevere through the discrimination of that era.
He is survived by his wife of 62 years, five sons, three daughters, 22 grandchildren and 23 great-grandchildren. He was preceded in death by two sons.
“He loved this region; he loved this city,” John Montgomery said. “He built his legacy and ministry as well as his family here, and he really had a great love for this area.”