Merged Episcopal congregations in California are first to take name of church’s only African American deaconess

By Mary Frances Schjonberg
Posted Apr 1, 2019

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: Diocese of Georgia

[Episcopal News Service] The 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 March 24. 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,” the Rev. Jill Honodel, the congregation’s long-term supply priest, said in a Diocese of California press release.

Educational segregation exists in the congregation’s neighborhood, 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.

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

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 center by hosting literacy programs, after-school programs and math programs,” 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 blacks. 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 Colored Episcopalians, Bishop C.K. Nelson set Alexander aside as a deaconess. He wrote in his diary for May 3 of that year, “Admitted as Deaconess Anna E. B. Alexander, a devout, godly and respected colored 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 recognized deaconesses from 1889 until 1970, when General Convention eliminated the order and included women in its canons governing deacons. (An interactive timeline of women’s ordination in The Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion is here.)

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.

Presiding Bishop Michael Curry celebrates the legacy and ministry of Deaconess Anna Ellison Butler Alexander during a visit to Good Shepherd Episcopal Church in Pennick, Georgia. Walter Holmes, standing left, a former student of St. Anna’s and current senior warden of Good Shepherd, greets Celestine Alexander Cartwright, standing right, also a former student of the saint’s. Photo: Good Shepherd Episcopal Church

Walter Holmes, senior warden for Good Shepherd, told Episcopal News Service that as a student of St. Anna’s, he “got to experience firsthand 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 recognized by the church. In 1998, Bishop Henry Louttit Jr. named her a Saint of Georgia with a feast day of Sept. 24. 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. Her feast day is Sept. 24 (found beginning on page 490 here).

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

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 March 24 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 Sept. 30, 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 Rev. Abbott Bailey, Diocese of California canon to the ordinary, brought Bishop Marc Andrus’ greeting to the Antioch church March 24 and made the merger official.

St. Anna’s Episcopal Church sports a new sign after becoming a new mission congregation of the Diocese of California. Photo: Diocese of California

Honodel said the California Episcopalians hope to honor 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 color, 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 honors St. Monica on May 4 and St. Augustine on August 28.

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 evangelize 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 May 28.

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 honor 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.

– The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is the Episcopal News Service’s senior editor and reporter. Christopher Sikkema, Episcopal Church coordinator for digital evangelism, contributed to this report.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this story mistakenly stated that Diocese of California Bishop Marc Andrus was at the church in Antioch on March 24.