Good Shepherd Episcopal Church and School

Glynn County
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Org TBD
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Photography by Bryan Stovall

Good Shepherd Episcopal Church, 1928, & Good Shepherd School, 1910, Pennick

Deaconess Anna Ellison Butler Alexander comes to this, my Ecumenical Calendar of Saints’ Days and Holy Days, via The Episcopal Church.

The history of this feast exemplifies how many commemorations rise to the denominational level in The Episcopal Church.

The feast rose from the diocesan level.  In 1998 Henry Irving Louttit, Jr., the Bishop of Georgia, declared Deaconess Anna Alexander a saint of Georgia, with the feast day of September 24.  The feast rose to the national level at the General Convention of 2015, which added the commemoration to A Great Cloud of Witnesses (2016), the expanded version of the official calendar of saints contained in Lesser Feasts and Fasts 2006 (2007).  The General Convention of 2018 approved the greatly expanded official calendar of saints, Lesser Feasts and Fasts 2018 (as of the writing of this post, available as a PDF, pending the final, published version next year), with the deaconess included.

As with many other Southern African-Americans of the time, the date–the year, even–of Anna’s birth remained uncertain, due to the lack of written records.  Records of the Diocese of Georgia listed her year of birth as 1878.  In 1947 her death certificate listed 1881 as her year of birth.  Anna’s birth actually occurred shortly after the end of the Civil War.  Most recent sources have given 1865 as her year of birth.  Our saint was the youngest of eleven children of former slaves James and Daphne Alexander (married in 1841), of the Pierce Butler Plantation on St. Simon’s Island, Georgia.  Daphne was a child of plantation rape; her biological father was Roswell King, Jr.  James, or “Aleck,” was a skilled carpenter and builder, as well as Butler’s personal assistant.  The Alexanders instilled the value of education into their children, and modeled it.  James, for example, taught himself to read and write.  The couple, when slaves, violated the law against educating slaves; they taught their children.

Anna, raised in The Episcopal Church, found the public education available to her in Glynn County, Georgia, substandard.  (The inadequate education of African Americans in the Postbellum South was often a matter of policy.)  It was fortunate, then, that the Alexanders provided informal education for their children.  Our saint, seeking to help others less fortunate than herself, became a teacher at the parochial school (attached to St. Cyprian’s Episcopal Church, Darien, Georgia) her sister, Mary Alexander Mann, had founded.  (Mary’s husband, Ferdinand M. Mann, was the Vicar of St. Cyprian’s Church from 1892 to 1914.)  Many also taught at the parochial school, as did another sister, Dora.  The school was, for a time, a vital to the education of African Americans in Darien.

Anna’s base of operations for most of her life was the poor, rural community of Pennick, in Glynn County.  In 1894 she prompted the founding of a mission, Church of the Good Shepherd.  She spent 1894-1897 studying at St. Paul’s Normal School (later College), Lawrenceville, Virginia.  Episcopal priest James Solomon Russell (1857-1935) had founded the school in 1888.  (St. Paul’s College closed in 2013).  Our saint, back in Pennick, rebuilt the congregation and, in 1901, founded the parochial school, which grew from one room to two rooms, with an apartment for the deaconess.

The Diocese of Georgia, founded in 1823, divided in 1907; the Diocese of Atlanta formed to the northwest of the rump Diocese of Georgia.  Bishop Cleland Kinloch Nelson, based in Atlanta when he was the Bishop of Georgia (1892-1907), remained in the capital city and became the first Bishop of Atlanta (1907-1917).  Nelson was a relatively liberal white Georgian of the time.  He disapproved of Jim Crow, but knew he could not change the system alone, so he at least tried to keep his diocese integrated.  Nelson also encouraged African-American missions.  The bishop was not all-powerful, however; he could not override the collective will of the majority of lay people.  So, in 1907, after the as the Diocese of Atlanta was forming, the Diocese of Georgia was segregating.  Nevertheless, one of Nelson’s final acts as the Bishop of Georgia was to consecrate Anna Alexander as a deaconess–the only African-American deaconess in the denomination.  He did this on Friday, May 13, 1907, at the second annual meeting of the Council of Colored Churchmen.

The rump Diocese of Georgia was officially segregated for four decades.  During most of that time policy was to discourage African-American missions.  In 1907-1946 there were no African-American delegates to the annual diocesan conventions.  The Council of Colored Churchmen, formed in 1906, barely had any representation on diocesan committees.  Bishop Frederick Focke Reese (in office 1908-1936), a racist who delivered paternalistic addresses to African-American clergymen, neglected African-American congregations and schools financially.  Therefore, much financial assistance had to come from other sources, official (such as the denomination) and individual.  Anna was an effective fund raiser in this context.  The deaconess provided an education to many African-American youth and shepherded them into further education–some at colleges and others at technical schools.  She also worked as a cook at Camp Reese, the diocesan, whites-only summer camp on St. Simon’s Island, for a number of years.  The racially segregated Diocese of Georgia named a cabin after her in 1938.  The deaconess, while working as a cook for white campers at Camp Reese, brought groups of African-American youth to St. Simon’s Island and provided a sort of summer camp for them.

Anna died on September 24, 1947.  She was either in her late seventies or early eighties.  She remained mostly forgotten for many years.  The Episcopal Church in Georgia, 1733-1957 (1960), by Henry Thompson Malone, never mentioned the deaconess’s name.  Even the otherwise excellent Black Episcopalians in Georgia:  Strife, Struggle and Salvation (1980), by Charles Lwanga Hoskins, frequently misidentified her as Dora.  (Father Hoskins was a wonderful man, a charming priest, and a fine homilist.  When I was a member of Trinity Episcopal Church, Statesboro, Georgia, he was a supply priest, filling in when the Rector was away.  Memories of some of his sermons have never ceased to edify me spiritually.  Hoskins did, however, often mistake Anna for her sister, Dora, in his book, still an invaluable source for this post.)  In recent years, however, Anna’s legacy has become more prominent, fortunately.  It has become sufficiently prominent that, in January 2018, Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, an African American, visited Good Shepherd, Pennick.

Out in a rural area of northern Glynn County stands a white frame church, its red doors welcoming all in the shady spot under a grove of trees. It was in this church that the late Deaconess Anna E. B. Alexander began the Good Shepherd Parochial School as part of the Good Shepherd Episcopal Church. The school is long since closed, but the church still holds two services a month, and counts among its members descendants of the founding families of the historically African American congregation.  At the 2015 General Convention of the Episcopal Church, Sept. 24 was set aside as a feast day in her honor. Alexander was the first African American woman ordained to the office of deacon, and spent her life instructing children in the Pennick community, and in Darien at St. Cyprian’s School, reading, writing and Bible lessons.

According to the lectionary for Sept. 24 from the Episcopal Church, Anna Ellison Butler Alexander, was born in 1865 – although other records indicate she was born between 1878 and 1881 – to recently emancipated slaves on the Butler Plantation on St. Simons Island. Her father was once the overseer for Pearce Butler, and he was taught to read Fanny Kemble, who was an English actress and Butler’s wife. Kemble, of course, wrote “Journal of a Residence on a Georgia Plantation in 1838-1839,” in which she roundly condemned slavery.

Alexander was one of the founders of Good Shepherd Episcopal Church in Pennick, according to Episcopal Church history, and studied at St. Paul’s Normal School in Lawrenceville, Va. She founded a parochial school at the church in 1902, and was ordained a deacon in 1907. The current church building, constructed in 1928, stands next to an earlier structure that once served as both the church and school, and the loft where Alexander lived. According to parishioners, Alexander also taught at St. Cyprian’s in Darien as well, and would walk from Brunswick, to Pennick, to Darien, to live out her calling. She didn’t however, spend her entire career there. For a while, she was called away to teach white children. The fact that these events occurred during the period between 1902 and 1947 is a miracle in and of itself.

According to written Episcopal Church history, Alexander ministered in Pennick for 53 years. In addition to teaching, she worked to make church camps possible for white children in the diocese. The diocese segregated her congregations in 1907, and the African American congregations weren’t invited to another diocesan convention until the year of her death, 1947. The history further states that it was only in the 1950s that a woman was again recognized as a deacon. Walter Holmes, the senior warden at the church, recalls Alexander, who died in 1947.

 

 

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