St. Ambrose Episcopal Church’s home on Darby Street is the third stop for the church in a nearly 150-year history as one of the city’s most prominent black faith institutions.
With its 30-foot-tall, floor-to-ceiling windows, it’s a survivor among churches of similar origins. Less than half of the historically black Episcopal churches founded in North Carolina after the end of the Civil War still exist, but the state’s diocese is working to ensure that this segment of its history is not lost.
For the past year, the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina has been gathering information about its historic African-American congregations and publishing the accounts in weekly online newsletters. Lynn Hoke, archivist for the diocese, wrote the articles based on church journals and records, identifying 59 historically black Episcopal churches in North Carolina.
Of those, Hoke said, 12 survive in the Diocese of North Carolina – the central part of the state from Raleigh to Charlotte – eight in the Diocese of Eastern North Carolina and four in Western North Carolina.
These churches are rare, noted the Rev. Jemonde Taylor, the St. Ambrose rector, who presided over services at the church Sunday. The separate African Methodist Episcopal denomination has as many churches in the Triangle alone as the historically black Episcopal churches in the entire central North Carolina diocese. Taylor said that creates a role for churches like St. Ambrose to speak up for marginalized people.
“Here on the margins, we’ve been a voice of conscience, not only for the Episcopal church, but churches across denominations,” Taylor said. “When you engage with those on the margins, when you give them a voice, you protect their future.”
That future stood on stage at St. Ambrose Sunday in the form of Rev. Hershey Stephens, who was baptized, confirmed and grew up in St. Ambrose and was ordained Saturday. She works with two congregations in New York City, where she went to seminary, but came home Sunday. As a member of the next generation of Episcopal leaders, she’s confident the church will persevere because, she says, it already knows how.
“The black church knows how to survive,” she said. “There’s a resiliency in the face of oppression that is connected to the spirit of the church. The church’s history provides the example of how to survive.”
Diocese archivist Hoke’s research showed many were founded as missions after the Civil War.
“They were often spread out and sporadic,” she said. “There were quite a few in rural areas, some out in the middle of nowhere. Some were founded in cities and helped by the local white Episcopal churches.”
Although the six oldest churches survive, others lasted a few decades or only a few years. St. Mary’s in Burlington was only open for a year, from 1893 to 1894. St. Phillips in Elizabeth City opened in 1891, closed in 1966 and reopened in 2003. The first church, St. Cyprian’s, opened in New Bern in 1866.
Hoke said initially many of the churches served as local schools, with enrollments of a couple of hundred students, but congregations of only a few dozen. The churches themselves were often sparse and simple.
“Some never got to the point where they had their own building,” she said. “If they did have their own building, it was much simpler, less ornate than white congregations. If you look at pictures of the early churches, there’s a visually striking difference.
“Many had a hard time prospering and never had a full-time priest. Most priests in historically black missions served three to four churches.”
The churches that started as schools established a nucleus in the community, then the church followed, Hoke said.
St. Ambrose opened Feb. 11, 1868, on the campus of St. Augustine’s University as the second black Episcopal church in the state. Its first chapel was built later on Dawson Street in Raleigh and physically moved to Wilmington Street in 1896, Hoke said, representing an amicable split with the university. In 1965, the congregation moved to Darby Road, in Southeast Raleigh.
What has kept St. Ambrose going through the years, as many churches were forced to close, was its close interaction with its community. That community included the nearby Biltmore Hills neighborhood, known as Raleigh’s first black middle-class neighborhood.
Edna Ballentine, a St. Ambrose member who was baptized in the 1940s at the Wilmington Street location, said the church has often served as a political catalyst and community center. She pointed to the Rev. George Fisher in the 1940s and his work to see garbage collection workers promoted to sanitation engineers. The Rev. Arthur James Calloway spoke out in the 1960s to support black candidates for public office and integrate Raleigh schools.
“The church has always been a political force in the community,” said Ballentine, who spent a week in a Greensboro jail during college for sitting in the lower section of a movie theater.
Members of the historically black Episcopal churches aren’t prepared to fade away or to relinquish their historic roles or role models. Taylor said St. Ambrose remains active as a political force in areas such as voter registration drives, work to end the school-to-prison pipeline and New Visions program, which identifies struggling churches and supports their survival.
“Historically black and majority black Episcopal churches still have a future,” he said.
To explore some of the histories of the historically black Episcopal churches, start at www.episdionc.org.