Congregation marks milestone

St. James' celebrates 175th anniversary

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 Episcopal 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. At the time, blacks formed their own congregations because they were often denied entrance to white churches or relegated to segregated pews. 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.

Levington began holding services in a space referred to as the Upper Room in a building at Park Avenue and Marion Street, where he also founded a school for blacks. St. James' was also unusual in that Levington welcomed the city's large population of free blacks as well as slaves. A number of white children, brought to church by their black housekeepers, also were on the church rolls.

As it grew, the congregation went through a succession of buildings: its first building at Saratoga and North (now Guilford Avenue) streets; a short stay at the Howard Chapel on Park Avenue near Dolphin Street; a former Baptist church on High Street near Lexington; and its location from 1901 to 1932 at Park Avenue and Preston Street.

The last move came under a legendary St. James' rector, the Rev. George F. Bragg Jr., who was appointed to the church in October 1891 and served until his death in March 1940.

"I remember Father Bragg very well," Louise Murphy said. "He was a short, thin man, with a very soft voice. To a child, he was scary."

A Sun editorial on Bragg's death said he was "perhaps best known to the general public through the many letters he contributed to the Sunpapers. Though the competition for space is keen and, in consequence, the editor must of necessity select with care from among the many letters received, those under the signature of Dr. Bragg demanded attention because almost invariably they had something to say upon the subject of racial relations."

Bragg, who founded the Maryland Home for Friendless Colored Children on his arrival in Baltimore from Norfolk, Va., also engineered the move to Fayette and Arlington avenues.

He was followed by the Rev. Cedric E. Mills, who left in 1963 to become bishop of the Virgin Islands.

Under the leadership of 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, a lifelong St. James' member and its junior warden, the second-ranking elected lay position, 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.

With Wilson's retirement, the church in 1988 hired a young dynamic priest from Cincinnati, the Rev. Michael B. Curry, as its rector.

Under Curry's leadership, St. James' has a gospel choir. It has more than 80 ministries, including an after-school academy that provides scholastic 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."

The church underwent a complete, albeit unplanned renovation after lightning hit the building in June 1993, sparking a fire that caused extensive damage.

"It was a matter of God looking down on us and deciding we needed some changes," said Charlene B. Griffen, St. James' senior warden. "He did not destroy us. He tapped us on the shoulder."

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