[Episcopal News Service] For 7-year-old Chelsea West, learning to play guitar at All Saints Episcopal Church in St. Louis, Missouri, is a grand invitation into a wondrous new world.
“I’m learning the E string and the B string,” the second-grader proclaimed excitedly during a Feb. 25 telephone interview with the Episcopal News Service. “It’s fun. I wanted to take the class because I don’t have anything to do when I go home. I like working with Miss Jillian because she makes guitar fun. I want to be able to sing and play the guitar.”
Jillian Smith, an Episcopal Service Corps intern who serves part time at All Saints, said that sometimes “Chelsea will say, this is hard, this is so hard. We’ll be in the middle of learning something and then suddenly she’ll say, ‘I’ve got it. I’ve got it’ and she looks at me, and it’s wonderful.”
All Saints’ Music and Arts Village offers free classes for underserved youth aged 7-11 in North St. Louis. “The Arts Village is designed for underprivileged families who could not otherwise afford music lessons,” she said.
“It is just one way All Saints is really embodying a lot of what the church should do,” Smith added. “They are really putting their heart and soul into the community and neighborhood and trying to do the best they can for the people in this area.”
It wouldn’t be the first time the 140-year-old historically black congregation saw a need and responded. In 1945, when local banks declined to offer financial services to African Americans, All Saints founded a credit union for that express purpose, according to Pat Heeter, church historian and a third-generation member.
Back in the day, the congregation was like family, recalled Heeter, who at 71 is happy to be actively engaged as junior warden and in the Episcopal Church Women. “I’m going to serve my church as best I can,” she said.
(Founded in 1874, the church is the third to be featured in the Episcopal News Service’s series of historically black congregations during February, Black History Month. Others include the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas in Philadelphia, the first historically black congregation in the nation, founded in 1792 by the Rev. Absalom Jones, and St. Barnabas, in Pasadena, California, founded in 1923 by seven women in a living room.)
They are among 90 historically black congregations still in existence, churches founded by African Americans post-slavery and during racial segregation in the United States because they were not welcome in mainstream Episcopal churches.
Like many historically black congregations, All Saints’ story converges with the social and politic realities of its community, of the nation and of the Episcopal Church.
It was the first African American Episcopal Church in the Diocese of Missouri and west of the Mississippi, and has occupied at least six sites, according to Heeter. It moved as membership swelled – to a high of 900-plus members in 1961.
At one point, members declined to participate in what was largely viewed as an attempt to create “a racial episcopate” after All Saints hosted the consecration of Rt. Rev. Edward Thomas Demby as the first black bishop suffragan in the continental United States.
That was in 1918 and Demby, who served in the Diocese of Arkansas, was “the suffragan bishop for colored work” and was appointed “jurisdiction for all African-American congregations in the Province of the Southwest,” according to a history compiled by Heeter.
“All Saints did not wish to be turned over formally to the suffragan bishop of Arkansas” but considered itself part of the Diocese of Missouri, according to the history. However, the parish financially supported Demby’s ministry.
By then, All Saints was well known and had already occupied several locations. It grew out of a Sunday school begun in 1871 by James Thompson, an administrator and teacher at a “free colored school” in Louisiana, Missouri, about 100 miles north of St. Louis.
Thompson became the first African-American deacon and priest in the Diocese of Missouri, which at the time encompassed the entire state.
Initial services were held in Trinity Episcopal Church as Our Savior mission. In just a year’s time, the church outgrew the spot and moved to a former Jewish synagogue where there was a name change – they worshiped as the Good Samaritan mission.
In 1882, a third building was purchased. Shortly afterwards, the mission was incorporated as All Saints Parish. By 1901, a rectory had been built beside the church.
Five years later, membership had grown to about 250 communicants and another move, to the former Messiah Unitarian Church building, increased seating capacity. “The Unitarians had spent more than $100,000 to erect this building,” according to the Heeter’s history.
“The building passed with all its furnishings, including the grand organ, into the possession of All Saints’. Three thousand dollars was spent in remodeling the interior and adapting the chancel to the requirements of the worship of the church. At this time All Saints’ voted itself self-sustaining, relinquishing all aid from the Missionary Board and has remained self-sustaining ever since.”
In 1917, the Rev. Douchette Redmond Clarke of Philadelphia became rector, and was “like my grandfather,” Heeter recalled. “He was close with our family because my father’s father died. My father was a very little boy, so the male image in his household became Fr. Clarke.”
A retired school psychologist, Heeter has painstakingly researched historical photos and documents while developing a church archives to preserve the church’s story. There were formative years when the name All Saints immediately telegraphed the church’s mission and identity throughout the community, she recalled.
“I was in the youth choir and we had a very active Sunday school for children and adults and a young teenage group. Our church was the gathering place for the youth of the area,” she recalled. “They didn’t necessarily belong to the church. Our youth group met and we had dances in the parish hall, and that kept us off the street.
“I’ve even run into people who weren’t members and they’d say, ‘do you remember the dances at All Saints?’ Even when I left and went away to college and attended another Episcopal church in Denver, I still told people my church was All Saints, St. Louis,” she said.
Christine Crenshaw, 80, whose parents and grandparents were also members, also recalled the days when church was both a family affair and an identity.
“We had a strong Sunday school and … I remember my grandmother took me on the streetcar every Sunday morning. We never missed church.”
She remembered hearing how the church helped out after her grandfather’s death at an early age. “My grandmother had to make it as best she could without a husband,” she recalled. “But every holiday the church brought baskets of food and turkey.”
She has served on the altar guild for nearly six decades and proudly notes that her grandsons – and a daughter – were acolytes, she said. “I enjoyed going to church,” Crenshaw said. “That was a big thing for me. It was a very, very prestigious church. When you said All Saints, it meant something, that was big time.”
Being church in the 21st century
Heeter’s parents, Solomon and Lucille James, established a tradition as church movers and shakers. “My father was an acolyte, a vestry person, and did volunteer work with buildings and grounds, as well as serving as a board member of the credit union,” Heeter recalled.
Her mother was altar guild president, participated in the St. Ann’s Guild and “something we used to call the Women’s Auxiliary that turned into the ECW” as well as becoming church liaison for a community program that provided home care for cancer patients, she said. “They used to make bandages and lap blankets for the patients.”
In addition to written records – births, marriages, deaths – Heeter is in possession of the original church font, she believes. But portions of the written history are missing, and Heeter has even enlisted the aid of a local PBS television station in her efforts to recover historical photos of the church’s past.
Parts of that history tell the story of ministries that soared and others that, after outliving their usefulness, ended. Like Bethany Mission, a church plant in 1921 that closed five years later. And, like the All Saints Credit Union, faced with stiff competition after mainstream financial institutions no longer excluded African Americans, which closed in 2007.
Heeter said the baptismal font – at which she was baptized – and other memorabilia, currently “is packed away because we don’t have space.”
A room designated for the archives doubles as the music room where Chelsea West and about a dozen other students pluck guitars and learn valuable life lessons – a sign of the times for the 140-year-old church facing changed circumstances, according to the rector, the Rev. Michael Dunnington.
Four years ago, the senior warden invited him to serve as rector and added: “I don’t know if it makes any difference that we’re a historically African-American church,” Dunnington recalled. “I was going to joke that, it’s OK, because I’m a historically white priest.”
True to history, the church again finds itself attempting to respond to community needs, he said.
“We’re struggling,” Dunnington said. With an average Sunday attendance of about 65, meeting in a 1930s-era building with “leaky roofs and malfunctioning boilers … part of the question that floats around here is, ‘what is the place for an African-American church, founded really because of segregation? You want to preserve the history, but that’s the question.
“Like any parish of our age and our congregants, we’re facing the challenges of where do we go from here and what does it mean to be church in the 21st century?”
The answer, at least in part, has been mission.
Parishioners, many of whom commute, “have been really good with responding to the challenges of taking a missional approach to this neighborhood” which remains largely African-American and poor, Dunnington said.
Outreach has included hosting community picnics and seasonal events, like a Halloween ‘Trunk or Treat’ safe neighborhood party. A food pantry ministry has expanded to include health screenings and flu shots and the Arts and Music Village is also hoping to expand.
It takes a village … and a church
The All Saints Arts and Music Village is, for Chelsea West, a “fun” place.
“I made a lot of friends in the class,” she said. “I’m learning the first two strings on the guitar and we’re learning notes on those right now. We haven’t gotten to singing yet.”
Students meet after school on Tuesdays and Thursdays. There are snacks along with keyboard and guitar lessons. Intern Jillian Smith, 22, a cellist from Tennessee, said music has been such a big part of her life that she wanted to share it with others.
“I try to instill in them that they can do this,” said Smith. “I have them say, ‘yes I can’ all the time and I let them know how proud I am of them. It’s so good to know that you have the ability to do something; that somebody believes in you. They are so talented and smart and sweet.”
Music “really is a new way of thinking; it’s such a process,” she said. “You have to count beats, to remember which note goes where, and why, and the timing. I explain to the students that music is a cool, different language.
“It can teach you so much. It can help in your subjects in school, like learning another language; it can help you set goals, and achieve normally what you otherwise wouldn’t be able to achieve.”
A recent recital added a goal-setting exercise outside the academic world, added Smith.
Sharing the “love and joy that can come from music” means a lot to her, too, she added. “I’m happy everyday that I have this job. The church really is doing a lot of good stuff here, to reach out and be a resource to the community and neighborhood like this. It’s one of the big things the church can do, be a voice for the neighborhood.”
–The Rev. Pat McCaughan is a correspondent for the Episcopal News Service.