St. James Episcopal Church, located next to Lafayette Square Park in West Baltimore, is the third oldest Black Episcopal church in the United States, and the oldest below the Mason-Dixon line. On June 20, St. James celebrated its 190th anniversary, marking almost two centuries of serving Baltimore’s African-American community spiritually, educationally, and socially.
St. James was established in 1824 by the Rev. William Levington, at the time a deacon and not yet an ordained priest, to serve the spiritual needs of both slave and free Blacks in Baltimore City.
“He came to Baltimore, in 1824, with no money, but with a vision, and he was able to raise money, locate a site, which was actually in downtown Baltimore close to where city hall is,” said Elise Jude Mason, one of the members of St. James’s history committee.
The church was founded not only as a place of worship, but also as a school for Black children, whether slave or free, and education
has been a thread that has run through the churches history ever since.
Today, St. James continues that legacy with the St. James Academy, an after-school program that serves children in the surrounding community free of charge. The church also runs a Sunday school program that has begun to draw children from the
surrounding community whose parents are not even members of the church, according to Eliza Johnson, another member of the history committee.
From 1891 to 1940, St. James was the home of the Rev. Dr. George F. Bragg, the preeminent Black churchman of the Episcopal Church, and one who advocated views radical for his time, according to Rev. Dr. Allen Robinson, the current rector of St. James.
“Bragg came up with the missionary plan which said that Black Episcopal churches should be able to function as a separate entity from White Episcopal churches thereby allowing them to elect their own leaders who can serve and meet their purposes,” said Robinson.
While the plan was not ultimately supported by the bishops of the Episcopal Church, Bragg’s efforts underscore the role St. James
has played in advocating for the rights and needs of African-Americans in the mainline denomination.
That fight continued under the Rev. Cedric Mills, who succeeded Bragg as rector of St. James. During the Civil Rights era, Mills worked quietly to integrate African- Americans more fully into the life of the Episcopal Church, sending Black parishioners to nearby White congregations to do nothing more than attend service.
In 1993, on Father’s Day, St. James was struck by lightning, resulting in a fire that destroyed half the roof and necessitated a two year reconstruction to repair the damage. As the church looks out at the urban decay by which it is currently surrounded, it hopes to play a role in a similar rebuilding effort, this time in the community that has housed it since Bragg moved the congregation there in the 1930s.
“What we want to do is bring back and instill a decent quality of life for the people that have to live here day in and day out,” said Robinson.
One of the initiatives the church has pursued to that end was the construction of the Oxford House. Constructed in formerly vacant properties that the church purchased, the Oxford House gives men recovering from addiction a second chance at life and independent living.
“I think that St James is leading the way in helping to show that mainline churches such as the Episcopal church, and in particular the black Episcopal church, is not irrelevant, but that it remains relevant as we continue to meet the needs of the people we serve,” said Robinson.
St. James will celebrate its 190th anniversary at the 9:30 a.m.worship and Eucharist on June 22, 2014. United States Congressman Elijah Cummings will be the guest. A picnic in Lafayette Square Park will follow.