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Merged California congregations are first to take name of only African American deaconess

Posted on: April 2, 2019 6:52 PM
Deaconess Anna E B Alexander is shown with a group of her students in front of the Good Shepherd School, which she founded in Pennick, Georgia.
Photo Credit: Diocese of Georgia

[Episcopal News Service, by Mary Frances Schjonberg] The US-based Episcopal Church now has its first congregation named after an African American woman. St George’s, Antioch, and St Alban’s, Brentwood, both in the Diocese of California, officially merged last month (24 March). The combined congregations are now known as St Anna’s Episcopal Church, named for St Anna Alexander. The seasonal game known as Lent Madness gets some of the credit for the California Episcopalians’ choice of Deaconess Anna Ellison Butler Alexander as their patron. Forward Movement’s version of March Madness features saints “competing” in brackets for the Golden Halo. St Anna “won” the 2018 halo, six months before General Convention reaffirmed her sainthood last July.

“We were so inspired by Anna’s story of the pouring out of her life for the sake of those formerly enslaved; despite having little resources she managed over time to build a school as well as a church to help people succeed through literacy,” Jill Honodel, the congregation’s long-term supply priest, said in a Diocese of California press release.

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The newly named congregation of St Anna’s Episcopal Church gathers 24 March outside the Antioch, California, church in San Francisco’s East Bay area.
Photo: Emma Marie Chiang / Diocese of California

Educational segregation exists in the congregation’s neighbourhood, according to Honodel. For example, she said, the majority of African American males struggle to pass their math classes through high school. “We are inspired by St Anna to do our part so that as many people as possible have a chance to succeed and the opportunity for a good future,” Honodel said.

Alexander’s faith and her championing of literacy and education exemplify “what I feel is true Christianity,” said Michelle Price, the new senior warden of St Anna’s.

“I took away from Lent Madness her being a saint as something I could emulate in my own life,” Price said in the release. “Some of the saints do things that are so huge and so dynamic and here’s this humble, small woman in Pennick, that just quietly changed people’s lives one student at a time.”

Alexander brought new life to children who otherwise would have been left behind, Price said. “Hopefully our church will model the same through our resource centre by hosting literacy programmes, after-school programmes and maths programmes,” she added.

Alexander, the first black female deaconess in The Episcopal Church, ministered in Georgia’s Glynn and McIntosh counties, concentrating on the education of poor black people. She helped establish Good Shepherd Episcopal Church and its parochial school in Pennick, just west of the Atlantic coast. She also established and helped run the St Cyprian’s School at St Cyprian’s Episcopal Church in Darien, Georgia.

In 1907 during the Convention for Coloured Episcopalians, Bishop C K Nelson set Alexander aside as a deaconess. He wrote in his diary for 3 May of that year, “Admitted as Deaconess Anna E B Alexander, a devout, godly and respected coloured woman, to serve as teacher and helper in the Mission of the Good Shepherd, Pennick, Ga.”

Alexander would be the only African American to serve as an Episcopal deaconess. The Episcopal Church recognised deaconesses from 1889 until 1970, when General Convention eliminated the order and included women in its canons governing deacons.

Alexander was born in 1865 to recently emancipated slaves on St Simons Island, Georgia. She died in 1947 and is buried in front of the original two-story Good Shepherd Episcopal Church.

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Deaconess Anna Ellison Butler Alexander was born in 1865 to recently freed slaves and died in 1947.
She ministered in rural Georgia, focusing on the education of poor black children.
Photo: Diocese of Georgia

Walter Holmes, senior warden for Good Shepherd, told Episcopal News Service that as a student of St Anna’s, he “got to experience first-hand her love, her dedication to people and the impact she had on so many people right here in South Georgia.

“So now, it’s a beautiful testimony to see her legacy reach the other side of the country – and even internationally with her as a saint now. She would probably be embarrassed by all the attention, though truthfully, that’s just who she was.”

St Anna taught Zora Nobles’ father and two of her uncles. “When I was very young, my dad would talk about her and how she in fact was instrumental in guiding he and his siblings to always strive to do the very best of the best – and to also get an education and encourage them to go to college,” she said in an interview last year.

The deaconess was always discussed in their home, she said. “All of the good work that she had performed, how she was just diligent and passionate, and how she was so driven to do what she was doing to help children to read, to understand science, to understand the world outside of Pennick, Georgia,” Nobles said.

Georgia Episcopalians worked for more than 20 years to have Alexander recognised by the church. In 1998, Bishop Henry Louttit Jr named her a Saint of Georgia with a feast day of 24 September. In 2011 and 2014, the diocese passed resolutions calling on the General Convention to include her on the church’s calendar. General Convention began the process of doing so in 2012. The 2018 meeting of General Convention added Alexander to the church’s calendar of saints via Resolution A065 when it approved a revision of “Lesser Feasts and Fasts” for trial use.

The new St Anna’s has parishioners from Uganda, Liberia, Nigeria, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Korea, Mexico, Canada, the Netherlands, Lebanon, Sierra Leone, Bermuda and Ghana, among others. “It was good to come to church this morning and to see a saint of the church that looks like me,” parishioner Betty Smith said when she saw the saint’s photo on the front cover of the 24 March order of service, according to the press release. “I’m really thankful that God has given this to me in my time.”

St George’s and St Alban’s were both hard hit by the 2008 real estate crash, according to the release. In 2018, they decided to share not only space in Antioch but also governance. On 30 September, the two mission churches voted unanimously to petition the diocese to merge and form a new mission congregation. There is potential for a future church plant in Brentwood on a nine-acre property owned by the Diocese of California, the release said. The Diocese of California’s canon to the ordinary, Abbott Bailey, brought Bishop Marc Andrus’ greeting to the Antioch church on 24 March and made the merger official.

Honodel said the California Episcopalians hope to honour St Anna’s name throughout the years through their connection to the people of Pennick, Georgia, who knew her personally, and they hope to strengthen that bond between Good Shepherd Episcopal Church in Georgia and the new mission church in San Francisco’s East Bay area.

Few Episcopal Church congregations are named for women

Among The Episcopal Church’s 6,712 congregations, just under 400 are named for women, with just five named for a woman of colour, St Monica. She was born in North Africa to Berber parents in about 331 and was the mother of St Augustine of Hippo. The Episcopal Church’s calendar honours St Monica on 4 May and St Augustine on 28 August.

There are about 42 congregations named for St Augustine that are not explicitly named for St Augustine of Canterbury who, in 596, led a group of 40 monks to evangelise the Anglo-Saxons in England. Each new Archbishop of Canterbury kisses the Gospel book said to have been brought to England by Augustine, swearing to observe the customs of Canterbury Cathedral. Augustine of Canterbury is commemorated on 28 May.

Some 200 Episcopal Church congregations are named for Mary, Jesus’ mother, or Mary Magdalene. There are about 50 congregations named for the saint who was Mary’s mother, variously spelled as Ann, Anne or Anna.

At least two congregations are named for women who are not officially considered saints. Caroline Church of Brookhaven in Setauket, New York, was named to honour Queen Wilhelmina Caroline of Brandenburg-Anspach, wife of George II of Great Britain. The church’s website notes that the choice is evidence of “the strong loyalist convictions of the original congregation.” Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church in Houston is a memorial to Edward Albert Palmer who heroically lost his life while saving that of his sister, Daphne Palmer Neville.

  • Click here for an interactive timeline of women’s ordination in The Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion.