Read about St. John's museum here.
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A church that has helped form many of Charleston's social and health services initiatives will celebrate a historic birthday Sunday.
St. John's Episcopal Church is 175 years old.
Manna Meal, Covenant House, Health Right, the American Civil Liberties Union, Alcoholics Anonymous, Women's Health Center of West Virginia, the Coalition for the Elderly, the Straight and Gay Alliance, and many others programs started within the church's walls.
Most have moved on to their own spaces. Others like Manna Meal are still housed at the church but supported by several churches and organizations in the city.
"What makes St. John's unique among especially churches in the area is that it's downtown," longtime church member Bob Rosier said. "As a downtown parish, we're supposed to serve the neighborhood."
An early test of openness
Mrs. Alexander Quarrier and Mrs. Joseph Lovell -- women from prominent Charleston families -- started the church, built in 1834 and consecrated in 1837.
The church's first building, on the corner of Virginia and McFarland streets, was occupied by Union troops during the Civil War. It was called "That Rebel Church" because the rector and many church members served with the Confederates.
The congregation moved to Quarrier Street and Leon Sullivan Way in 1901.
St. John's church has had a hand in forming Episcopal churches Saint Luke's, Saint James, Saint Matthews, All Saints and Church of the Good Shepherd.
Within the church's recent history, its former rector, the Rev. Jim Lewis, is well known for leading opposition to Kanawha County's movement against "godless textbooks" during the so-called Great Textbook War of 1974.
Lewis, who served the church between 1974 and 1982, was instrumental in starting Manna Meal, which feeds the city's hungry, and Covenant House, which helps the poor.
Lewis was 39 when he came to St. John's from Martinsburg.
"When I came in 1974, part of the call here, the mission, was to open the doors [of the church] to the community," Lewis said. "St. John's had done that in many ways. When I was there, we really did do that."
The church and Lewis would be tested on their devotion to that call soon after his arrival. A man approached the rector and asked that a hospital workers' union be allowed to meet inside the church building.
The pastor ultimately agreed, to the dismay of a one of the members of church's vestry who also served on the hospital board. The board member took issue and went to the rest of the vestry, which ultimately sided with Lewis.
"That was a big test to see how open the church would be," Lewis recalled.
In another instance, a woman requested that the church start a women's health program. After receiving a grant from Planned Parenthood, the Women's Health Center of West Virginia got its start in a church office, he said.
"That led to me being accused of being a known abortionist," Lewis said.
One Sunday when Lewis preached at Sacred Heart Catholic Church, a man approached him at the pulpit, took him by the arm and led him outside.
The man, who was protesting Lewis and the abortion clinic, had announced to the newspaper his plans to remove the pastor, he said.
Police were waiting for the man outside the church, where they arrested him.
"We dropped the charge," Lewis recalled.