Episcopal parishes, dioceses to commemorate the life and work of Absalom Jones, the church’s first Black priest

By Melodie Woerman
Posted Feb 1, 2024

Portrait of Absalom Jones by Philadelphia artist Raphaelle Peale in 1810.

[Episcopal News Service] Feb. 13 is the Feast Day of the Rev. Absalom Jones, who in 1802 became the first Black person ordained a priest in The Episcopal Church, and in coming weeks, services and activities are planned in dioceses and parishes across the church to remember this trailblazer.

Jones was born into slavery in Delaware in 1846 and moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1762 with the man who owned him. Together they attended St. Peter’s Church, where he met and married Mary Thomas, an enslaved woman who also worshiped there. Jones and his father-in-law were able to buy Mary’s freedom, but he remained enslaved until 1784, when his owner granted him his freedom. He helped form the Free African Society, a mutual aid benevolent organization, which ultimately led to the founding of the African Church of Philadelphia.

Soon after, church members voted to seek affiliation with The Episcopal Church, and Jones was asked to provide pastoral leadership. In October 1794 it was admitted to the Diocese of Pennsylvania as the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas, the first Black Episcopal congregation in the United States. Bishop William White – the second bishop of the newly formed Episcopal Church – ordained Jones as deacon in 1795 and as priest on Sept. 21, 1802. The church grew to more than 500 members during its first year, and parishioners formed a day school and were active in self-empowerment and anti-slavery activities. Jones died on Feb. 13, 1818.

Jones’ feast day also comes during Black History Month, and the Archives of The Episcopal Church has an online exhibit about his life and contributions, as well as those of other Black Episcopalians, entitled “The Church Awakens: African Americans and the Struggle for Justice.”

In addition, The Episcopal Church has created the Absalom Jones Fund to help support historically Black colleges and universities affiliated with The Episcopal Church since the 1800s. The fund offers bulletin inserts for Feb. 11 to help parishioners learn more.

The following is a list of some events honoring Jones hosted by Episcopal churches and dioceses. Check online for additional events. All times listed are local.

African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas – The church that Jones founded in Philadelphia will commemorate him on Feb. 11 at 10 a.m. with its annual Mardi Gras Jazz Mass. The featured preacher will be the Rev. Stephanie Spellers, canon to the presiding bishop for evangelism, reconciliation and creation care. Also participating will be members of Christ Church, Philadelphia; St. Peter’s, Philadelphia; and Church Farm School.

Diocese of New York – The Diocese of New York will host a service at the Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine in New York City on Feb. 3 at 10:30 a.m. New York Bishop Andrew Dietsche will be the celebrant, with the Rev. Yejide Peters Pietersen, associate dean and director of formation at Berkeley Divinity School of Yale University, preaching. Music will include jazz luminaries and the music of Duke Ellington. A festival choir of volunteers will sing, and the service will be livestreamed.

Diocese of Long Island – The Diocese of Long Island and the Black Clergy Caucus will host a service  on Feb. 3 at 11 a.m. at St. Philp’s, Brooklyn, New York. Long Island Bishop Lawrence C. Provenzano will preside, and the Rev. Devon Jerome Crawford, national executive director of the Multifaith Initiative to End Mass Incarceration, will preach.

Diocese of Western North Carolina –  The Diocese of Western North Carolina will partner with St. Matthias‘, Asheville, North Carolina, to celebrate a service on Feb. 3 at 11 a.m. at the church. The Rt. Rev. José A. McLoughlin will celebrate, and the speaker will be preacher and theologian Mark Andrew Jefferson.

Diocese of Michigan – The Diocese of Michigan will celebrate a Holy Eucharist at the Cathedral Church of St. Paul, Detroit, Michigan on Feb. 3 at 4 p.m. The Very Rev. Barry Randolph, pastor of Church of The Messiah Detroit, will preach.

Diocese of Washington – The Diocese of Washington and the Crummell-Cooper chapter of the Union of Black Episcopalians will offer a service on Feb. 4 at 3 p.m. at St. Andrew’s, College Park, Maryland. The Rt. Rev. Mariann Edgar Budde, bishop of Washington, will be the celebrant, and the Rev. Ricardo Sheppard, rector of the Episcopal Church of the Atonement in Washington, D.C., will be the preacher.

Cathedral of St. Paul – The Cathedral of St. Paul in Erie, Pennsylvania, will host a community event on Feb. 4 at 4 p.m. The service will feature the Cathedral Choir, choirs of Mercyhurst University and instrumentalists.

Diocese of West Missouri – The Diocese of Werst Missouri will offer a Eucharist on Feb. 4 at 5:30 p.m. at St. Augustine’s in Kansas City, Missouri. The diocese’s bishop provisional, the Rt. Rev. Diane Jardine Bruce will be the celebrant, and the Rev. Rita Kendagor will preach.

Diocese of Pittsburgh – The Diocese of Pittsburgh will host a celebration of the life of the Rev. Absalom Jones and Bishop Barbara Harris on Feb. 10 at 10 a.m. at Trinity Cathedral, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The Rt. Rev.  Gayle Harris, assistant bishop of the Diocese of Virginia, will be the preacher. The event is sponsored by the Commission on Race and Reconciliation and the Beloved Community Initiative.

Diocese of California – The Diocese of California will offer a service on Feb. 10 at 10 a.m. St. Aidan’s, San Francisco. The celebrant and preacher will be California Bishop Marc Andrus. The event is sponsored by the Northern California/Vivian Traylor Chapter of the Union of Black Episcopalians and the African American Commission of the diocese.

Diocese of Missouri – The Diocese of Missouri’s Dismantling Racism Commission will host its annual celebration of Absalom Jones on Feb. 10 beginning at 11 a.m. at St. Timothy’s, Creve Coeur, Missouri. The day will begin with a worship service led by Missouri Bishop Deon Johnson, and the guest preacher will be Maryland Bishop Eugene Sutton. Featured will be the diocesan Gospel Choir, led by Harry Moppins. After the service all are invited to stay for lunch and workshops led by the Dismantling Racism Commission. The theme of this year’s event is Revive, Renew, Restart: Equipping Beloved Community.

Diocese of Ohio – The Diocese of Ohio will celebrate the Consecration of the Rt. Rev. Barbara Clementine Harris and the commemoration of the Rev. Absalom Jones on Feb. 10 at 1 p.m. at Church of Our Saviour, Akron, Ohio. The service is presented by the president, officers and members of the Wilma Ruth Combs Northeast Chapter of the Union of Black Episcopalians, along with the Diocese of Ohio and Church of Our Saviour, Akron.

Diocese of Southwest Florida – The Cathedral Church of St. Peter in St. Petersburg, Florida, will be site of events on Feb. 10 beginning at 1 p.m. with a workshop on Afro-centric Liturgical Music with Carl MaultsBy, the director of music and organist at St. Richard’s, Winter Park, Florida. Afterward will be a service of Holy Eucharist with readings from influential Black voices in The Episcopal Church, including Presiding Bishop Michael Curry and the Rev. Pauli Murray, the first African American woman ordained to the priesthood. The Rt. Rev. Doug Scharf, bishop of the Diocese of Southwest Florida, will be celebrant and preacher. The events are hosted by the Diocese of Southwest Florida, the John E. Culmer Chapter of the Union of Black Episcopalians, St. James House of Prayer, St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church and the Cathedral Church of St. Peter.

The Church of the Holy Cross – The Episcopal Church of the Holy Cross in Decatur, Georgia, will be the site of a service on Feb. 10 at 3 p.m. with the Rt. Rev. Robert C. Wright, bishop of the Diocese of Atlanta, preaching, and the Rev. Dennis Patterson Jr., presiding. The event is hosted by the Union of Black Episcopalians Atlanta chapter.

St. Michael and All AngelsSt. Michael and All Angels, Tallahassee, Florida, along with St. John’s in Tallahassee, will host a joint service on Feb. 11 at 10 a.m.

Episcopal Church in MinnesotaSt. John’s in St. Paul, Minnesota, will be the site of a service on Feb. 11 at 2 p.m. hosted by the Episcopal Church in Minnesota; Holy Trinity, Minneapolis; and St. John’s. The Rev. Jeckonia Okoth, diocesan missioner for multicultural ministries, will celebrate, with the Rev. Craig Lemming, associate rector at St. John’s, preaching.

Diocese of Pennsylvania – The Diocese of Pennsylvania is hosting activities on Feb. 17 beginning at 10 a.m. at Episcopal Academy, Newtown Square, Pennsylvania. Choral performances will begin the day, and a service of Holy Eucharist will take place at 11 a.m. Pennsylvania Bishop Daniel G. P. Gutiérrez will celebrate, and the preacher will be the Rev. Ronald C. Byrd, The Episcopal Church’s missioner for African descent ministries.

St. JamesSt. James, Lancaster, Pennsylvania, will host a variety of activities on Feb. 17 beginning at 1 p.m. being offered through the Bishop Nathan Baxter Chapter of the Union of Black Episcopalians. Activities include a community choir workshop; a reception and discussion of “Inside Out: Spiritual Guide for Pre-teen and Teen Girls” with author Brenda Spencer; and a worship service featuring guest preacher the Rev. Ricardo Sheppard from Atonement Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C.

Diocese of West Tennessee –  The Diocese of West Tennessee, along with the the Edward Demby Chapter of the Union of Black Episcopalians, will host several activities on Feb. 24, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., both in-person at the diocese’s Barth House and online. Activities will include a presentation, an historical reenactment and a panel discussion.

Diocese of Massachusetts – The Diocese of Massachusetts has rescheduled is planned Absalom Jones Day observance to April 7 at 4 p.m. at St. Cyprian’s, Roxbury, Massachusetts. The Rt. Rev. Alan M. Gates, the diocese’s bishop, will preside, and the Rev. James Hairston will preach. It previously had been set for Feb. 11.

–Melodie Woerman is a freelance writer and former director of communications for the Diocese of Kansas.