Service celebrating new saint seals bond between her congregation and church that took her name

By David Paulsen
Posted Oct 8, 2019

Zora Nobles, left, and her cousin, Dwala Nobles, present relics of St. Anna Alexander at a service Oct. 6 at Saint Anna’s Episcopal Church in Antioch, California. Photo: Kazuhiro “Kaz” Tsuruta

[Episcopal News Service] A California congregation named for one of The Episcopal Church’s newest saints, St. Anna Alexander, celebrated its namesake at a Sunday worship service that included a visit from two members of the church that Alexander helped establish in Pennick, Georgia.

Dwala Nobles, 59, and Zora Nobles, 65, cousins and longtime members of Good Shepherd Episcopal Church in Pennick, brought with them century-old relics from Alexander’s work at Good Shepherd Church and its school, including Alexander’s Book of Common Prayer. On Oct. 6, Saint Anna’s Episcopal Church in Antioch, California, welcomed them as the congregation celebrated Alexander’s legacy as the only black Episcopal deaconess.

“It was almost like coming home,” Dwala Nobles told Episcopal News Service in a phone interview the day after the service. “We felt like we were home among family and friends.”

Saint Anna’s, the first Episcopal church to be named after an African American woman, was formed in March through the merger of two former congregations, St. George’s in Antioch and St. Alban’s in Brentwood in the Diocese of California. Alexander had only a year earlier been confirmed as a saint in The Episcopal Church, when General Convention in July 2018 voted to add her and her feast day, Sept. 24, to the church’s calendar of saints.

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 was born in 1865 and died in 1947, and she spent much of her adult life ministering to poor black residents of Glynn and McIntosh counties in rural Georgia, particularly through education. She became a deaconess in 1907 in an era before the church allowed women as priests or deacons. Among those she taught at Good Shepherd were Dwala Nobles’ father and Zora Nobles’ father.

Among the items they brought with them to California were Alexander’s hymnal from 1878 and a Sunday school ledger from the early 20th century. Some of the materials include Alexander’s handwritten notes on teaching methods.

“St. Anna was indeed the persistent force encouraging and urging her students to aim high,” the Rev. Jennifer Nelson, a deacon in the Diocese of California, said in her sermon for the Oct. 6 service. Nelson is originally from Guyana and said Alexander reminded her of the caring teachers who encouraged her in her education.

“She had God’s blessing as she continued to forge onward, blazing a path that gives us a window that now shows us the courage and tenacity she would need to overcome the bigotry and discrimination in her time.”

During the service, Alexander’s Book of Common Prayer and other relics were placed on the altar. The cousins from Alexander’s Georgia church presented the congregation at Saint Anna’s with a framed picture of Alexander that was propped against the altar. Saint Anna’s reciprocated by giving Dwala Nobles and Zora Nobles a silver chalice that had been used by one of the two congregations that merged to form the new church.

St. Anna Alexander’s relics, including her Book of Common Prayer and hymnal, are received by the Rev. Alberta Buller and placed on the altar during a service Oct. 6 at Saint Anna’s Episcopal Church. Photo: Kazuhiro “Kaz” Tsuruta

A video of the service was shared on the church’s Facebook page.

Alexander was “imbuing us with her spirit,” the Rev. Jill Honodel, the congregation’s long-term supply priest, told ENS. She described it as an emotional and joyous day, centered around highlighting the life and works of an Episcopal saint who is only beginning to receive the full recognition she deserves.

“It felt like together, from coast to coast, we are taking what has been hidden and invisible all these years and we have the privilege and the honor of revealing it,” Honodel said.

Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, who visited Good Shepherd Episcopal Church in January 2018, also addressed those gathered at Saint Anna’s, through a brief video he recorded for the service. He alluded to a resource center established by Saint Anna’s.

“I rejoice in the fact that you, Saint Anna’s Episcopal Church, have focused on the needs of children and families in your community with a resource center for children and families,” Curry said. “That indeed is God’s work. That indeed is the work of Anna Alexander, deaconess of The Episcopal Church.”

Honodel and other local leaders spent the following day showing their two visitors from Georgia around the San Francisco Bay Area, including a sightseeing stop at the Golden Gate Bridge. They were scheduled to return home with Alexander’s relics on Oct. 8.

“It was just really critical that we come for this. We know this is just the beginning of the relationship,” Dwala Nobles said.

– David Paulsen is an editor and reporter for Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at