St. John's to celebrate 175th anniversary
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.
One of the most controversial things Lewis did during the 1970s was to bless gay couples in the church, Rosier said.
That came about after a friend of Lewis' knocked on the priest's door, came out to him as gay and asked that he and his friends have space in the church to meet.
"These were the days when there wasn't much coming out in Charleston," Lewis said.
That conversation led to gays and lesbians having meeting space in the church and, ultimately, to Lewis quietly performing a sort of marriage ceremony for two same-sex couples who attended the church.
Later, two lines in a newspaper story would expose Lewis and the ceremonies, which not even the church's congregation had yet known about, Lewis said.
"It really hit the fan," Lewis recalled. "I mean really hit the fan."
Many congregants left the church because of the blessings, but they also brought in others and helped form an attitude that stills exists today in the church.
"That set the tone for gay and lesbian people being welcomed here," Rosier said. "It's really changed a lot of people's hearts. The people are really supportive. Nowadays it's a non-issue. There are a lot of gays that attend -- I'm one of them."
'Not the worst thing we've been through'
In recent years, the church has gone through a bit of upheaval over the appointment of a priest to rector.
"[There was a] disagreement over whether Rev. Susan Latimer was the right person to be rector over St. John's," Rosier said. "That caused a lot of tension and, luckily, she was able to be called to ministry in Tampa, Fla."
The church brought on an interim rector -- the Rev. Michael Jupin -- in May.
"The majority of the people who left because they disapproved of [Latimer] have returned," Rosier said. "Other people left because they disliked the controversy. In fact, it was referred to as drama by some people. They didn't feel comfortable with the drama."
Lewis, who had moved back to Charleston after being away, lost his license to minister for violating Episcopal procedures by performing rites for St. John's members while he was no longer rector of the congregation.
Lewis declined to comment on the situation for this story.
Rosier said the church has survived through much bigger upheavals.
"There has been a lot of dissatisfaction in the last couple of years," he said, "but I don't think it's the worst thing we've ever been through."
He added that the biggest upheaval in recent church history was when Lewis offered the blessings on gay couples.
Under Jupin's leadership, the congregation is healing, said David Morton, the church's choirmaster and music director. Morton has been a member of the church since 1962, although he lived away from Charleston for a while. The congregation, typically focused on others, is taking time to itself, he said.
"We're trying to work with ourselves right now," Morton said. "We need to. That's important."
Morton recalled a conversation with a church secretary who died years ago. The woman, who was angry at the time with the minister, said, "Ministers come and go but St. John's stands on the corner of Quarrier and Broad."
Although that street name has changed to Leon Sullivan, the sentiment remains true, Morton said.
"We will be here through smoke and fire and tribulation," Morton said. "St. John's will stand on the corner."
Reach Lori Kersey at email@example.com or 304-348-1240.