Church recalls past to mark 175th year

Faith: Worshipers at the oldest black Episcopalian congregation south of the Mason-Dixon line celebrate.

June 27, 1999|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

At Easter dawn in 1932, the parishioners of St. James' Episcopal Church marched about one mile west, from their aging sanctuary on Park Avenue near Bolton Hill to a newly purchased house of worship at Arlington and Lafayette avenues.

Nine-year-old Louise G. Murphy was awe-struck as she entered the new church for sunrise services. "We had prayers outside the church, and then they flung the doors open," Murphy, now 77, recalls. "You went into this great big dark place. It was frightening."

As St. James' Episcopal Church celebrates its 175th anniversary today, the congregation will look back on its history as the first African-American Episcopalian congregation established south of the Mason-Dixon line and an important city religious institution. And it looks to a future as a vibrant church body, maintaining its Anglican roots alongside its African-American heritage.

St. James' communicants will begin their celebration this morning by re-enacting the Easter morning march from Bolton Hill to West Baltimore. Leading the way will be Louise Murphy.

"I'm not the only one living who marched to the church [in 1932]. But I'm the only one living that can walk to the church," Murphy said, chuckling as she served cake and ice cream to children attending a birthday party for the church last week.

St. James' was founded as St. James' First African Protestant Episcopal Church in 1824 by the Rev. William Levington, a free black who had been ordained at St. Thomas' Church in Philadelphia. When St. James' was started, the only African-American Episcopal congregations were St. Thomas' and St. Philip's Church in New York City. St. James' was the first such congregation in state south of the Mason-Dixon line. St. James' was unusual in that Levington welcomed free blacks as well as slaves.

Under the Rev. Donald O. Wilson from 1963 until his retirement in 1986, St. James' became a center for the neighborhood's youth. Jacob D. Howard, the second-ranking elected layman, recalls that dances at the parish in the 1960s and 1970s regularly drew 200 to 300 people. "Everything was centered around the church, and you weren't embarrassed to say, `I'm going to St. James' ' for a dance or some activity," he said.

Under the leadership of the Rev. Michael B. Curry, hired in 1988, St. James' has a gospel choirand more than 80 ministries, including an after-school academy that provides help for neighborhood children.

"That's one of the things we at the church are so proud of," said John H. Murphy III, 83, a retired photographer for the Baltimore Afro-American newspaper and a church member since 1948. "We're part of the community."

Pub Date: 6/27/99

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