Church is rich in history

Red bows adorn the parish doors during the Christmas season - Photo by Melissa Parker
Red bows adorn the parish doors during the Christmas season - Photo by Melissa Parker

Montgomery – St. John’s, the oldest Episcopal Church in Montgomery, was placed on the National Register of Historic Places on February 24, 1975. It was organized in 1834 by a small group of pioneer settlers.

St. John’s has the distinction of being the first brick church in the city, and in 1837 it moved into a modest sanctuary on the corner of Perry and Jefferson Streets. It wasn’t until 1855 that it moved to its current location (in the same block as the old) but facing Madison Avenue.

Jefferson Davis, the first President of the Confederate States of America, worshipped at the church and visitors can see his pew as it is still marked. That pew, Number 115, is the only one of the original pews remaining in the nave. The top of the pew has fleur-de-list carving and has the old carpet-covered hassock which is one of the early kneelers, another souvenir of St. John’s colorful history.

Mr. and Mrs. Davis could walk to the church from their residence only a few blocks away. The people of Montgomery always remarked how the couple were in their pew every Sunday, near the back on the right side. The President would walk in usually carrying his high silk hat in his hand and was observed to have been very devout, kneeling to pray as he entered. The Davises would stay for the entire service and not leave until the very end when the benediction was given. The Union Army ordered the church to close its doors in 1865, but it would reopen for services in 1866.

During World War I, St. John’s was host to many of the Army recruits trained at Camp Sheridan, a tent encampment located three and one-fourth miles north of Montgomery on the Lower Wetumpka Road (which was not part of the city at that time). In 1918 the church was closed along with other city buildings when a deadly epidemic of Spanish influenza broke out at the Camp and spread to the city.

During World War II, military men from Maxwell and Gunter Fields, including groups of British cadets, were entertained by church women on Saturday afternoons in the Parish House. This was an adjunct to the church which has held community meetings and socials. In earlier years it served as a headquarters for a handicapped children’s clinic, as a school for the deaf, and in 1945 as a Red Cross distribution center for clothing to be given to tornado victims.

It is well worth a visit inside the church’s sanctuary because the sights are breathtaking, from the wood plank ceiling to the magnificent stained glass windows. The ceiling medallions were originally painted in 1869 on the ceiling from designs by the Rev. Horace Stringfellow (Rector at St. John’s from 1869 until 1894). Recent restoration has revealed the clarity of color and detail of the ceiling medallions which were originally stenciled, but had become dulled by layers of varnish applied over the years.

One of the fascinating windows is called by some as the “Angel of Death,” but some prefer to call it “The Guardian Angel.” It is in memorial for a child who died before his third birthday. Another window signifies the risen Christ, His staff with banner an emblem of victory, His resplendent robes in gold and white, colors that denote holiness and purity.

The church is currently the house of worship for over 1,300 parishioners and takes pride on being one of Montgomery’s (and one of Alabama’s) most enduring landmarks.

Article by Melissa Parker

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