HAVERHILL — Having sustained an 88-year tradition of training Pentecostal ministers, Zion Bible College ceased to exist on Jan. 1.
But the mission continues, stronger than ever, in this city where neighbors are thrilled to see the institution thrive, six years after it nearly closed.
The school, located since 2008 on the former Bradford College campus along South Main Street in Haverhill, was renamed Northpoint Bible College as of New Year’s Day. Affiliated with the Assemblies of God fellowship of churches, the college continues to serve one purpose: training men and women for ministry in the Pentecostal tradition.
“People in the general public don’t have one clue about ‘Zion,’ it means nothing to them,” said Charles Crabtree, the college’s president. Some have wrongly assumed the school is Jewish, Crabtree explained, and such misunderstandings sometimes complicated missionary work by its students abroad.
“We thought it was better overall to remove any confusion, and ‘Northpoint’ is a good name,” he said.
The name change caps a stunning turnaround for the institution, which was preparing to close its doors in 2007. Since then, it has relocated from Barrington, R.I., to Haverhill, and doubled enrollment, from about 200 in 2008 to 404 this fall. Northpoint is taking steps to add its first master’s degree program, and increase its undergraduate student body to 500 in coming years.
As host to a growing school atop a prominent hill, Haverhill’s Bradford section once again draws energy year-round from bustling students, faculty, and staff. That’s been good for community morale and for local businesses.
On a snowy morning last month, students crammed for final exams, listened to a sermon from a dean, and prayed. Later, some would blow off steam by visiting local establishments such as Choice Fitness, a gym in the nearby Central Plaza retail complex.
“In the evening, I’ll see 10 to 12 of them walk in the door at the same time,” said Fitness Choice’s general manager, Nick Paquette. “They like to spread by word of mouth how much they enjoy our gym, their friends end up signing up — it’s been great for us.”
For Northpoint, the journey from the brink of closure befits a community that believes in miracles.
In Rhode Island, Zion couldn’t afford to maintain the 50,000-square-foot stone mansion that had been its home. The school needed millions for repairs just to meet fire codes. When all seemed hopeless, a billionaire family from Oklahoma came to the rescue.
Owners of the Hobby Lobby chain of craft stores and benefactors of many Christian education projects, the Green family bought the old Bradford College property for $3.5 million in 2007 as a gift for Zion. The Greens also paid for renovations to the classroom building, and the installation of sprinklers in the gymnasium, among other improvements. Zion promptly gave up its Rhode Island property and relocated to the 19-acre campus in Haverhill.
For Zion, the extraordinary gift saved a school that had long survived on a shoestring and a prayer. Founded in East Providence in 1924 as the School of the Prophets, the institution paid no salaries and charged no tuition for its first 65 years, in part because many in Pentecostal circles were wary of higher education and didn’t do much to professionalize it, according to Crabtree. Still, Zion Bible College survived thanks to donations, volunteer teachers, and students grateful for free college educations.
More recently, Crabtree said, Pentecostals have become less skeptical of formal education. Rising expectations for leaders to be professionally educated are now helping fuel enrollment growth at Bible colleges, he said.
What’s more, the Missouri-headquartered Assemblies of God is growing in New England, which means job opportunities for Northpoint graduates. Between 2000 and 2010, the fellowship grew by 34 percent in Massachusetts, according to a census compiled in 2010 by the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies. New Assemblies of God congregations in the region include Remix Church in Salem, Garden City Church in Beverly, and East Coast International Church in Lynn.
Some AOG churches have staff in more than one location, such as Calvary Christian Church , which has campuses in Lynnfield and Peabody. The arrangement creates opportunities for students such as Jorge E. Pabón, a Northpoint junior from Patterson, N.Y., with ambitions to teach, possibly in a church setting.
“Students definitely see that the Assemblies of God . . . is vibrant, is growing, and they’re attracted to the manner in which the churches do their work,” Pabón said. “A lot of people have been given a call to serve in New England . . . and students here are driven by that sense of call.”
For the Bradford neighborhood, Northpoint’s success has brought relief from worry about what would happen to the historic campus. Its brick buildings and crisscrossing footpaths bustled with activity for nearly 200 years, from 1804 to 2000, when the college closed because of dwindling enrollment. Then for eight years, uncertainty loomed over the area as mothballed facilities languished and prospective developers floated proposals that some feared would mar the character of the community.
“The buildings were severely deteriorating, and we were probably going to lose a tremendous asset to the city” if Zion had not located there, said William Pillsbury, Haverhill’s director of economic development and planning. “The arrival of Zion on the scene was a tremendous stabilizing factor.”
Northpoint continues to recruit students for about 100 available dorm rooms, and to restore the property’s aging buildings. When Crabtree retires in May and hands the presidency over to David Arnett, one of the new top administrator’s tasks will be to raise an estimated $7.5 million to restore a water-damaged theater building. Plans call for the refurbished facility to seat 600 — enough to convene the whole college community — and function as Northpoint’s chapel.
Meanwhile, students and faculty adapt to facilities in transition. They are in their second temporary chapel space, with portable chairs set up in a makeshift sanctuary that once served as the library’s lobby. It’s not ideal, Crabtree said, but it’s also not permanent.
What is permanent, it seems, is the presence of an academic community that’s been a boost to a range of area organizations. Students do internships at about 55 Haverhill area churches, for instance, and volunteer at homeless shelters and prisons. They also eat at local restaurants, such as Primo Pizza in Central Plaza.
When prospective students visit for semiannual events, Primo gets some of its biggest orders of the year according to owner Bart Forgetta.
“People will come in and ask why we’re so slammed,” said Forgetta. “I’ll tell them we’re doing 110 or 115 pizzas for the college. . . The exposure we get from that is just tremendous.”G. Jeffrey MacDonald can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @gjmacdonald.