Silent witnesses: Church maintains house of worship, piece of city’s history
by Laura Camper
Dec 20, 2012 | 3780 views |  0 comments | 15 15 recommendations | email to a friend | print
The 12 bells in St. Michael and All Angels Church’s 95-foot tower can be heard throughout West Anniston as they ring out the hours, just as they have for more than 120 years.

However, the neighborhood in which the church stands is now host to dozens of empty houses and vacant lots. As a consequence, the church’s membership has fallen over the decades, said the Rev. Hugh Jones. But it has leveled off and has maintained its membership in recent months and years, he added. The church currently has a registered membership of about 200 with about 80 who regularly attend Sunday service, Jones said.

It’s slightly older sister, Grace Episcopal Church, at Leighton Avenue and 10th Street, has 380 registered members with an average attendance at Sunday service of about 130.

But even as the membership of the churches has dwindled, the cost of maintaining the aging historic structures increases. It’s a problem found all over the country in nearly all denominations, said Rob Morpeth, staff officer for finance and administration at the Episcopal Diocese of Alabama.

Click here for more photos of St. Michael & All Angels

Morpeth said the Episcopal church values the historic churches for their beauty and for their symbolism. They are “silent witnesses to the faith,” Morpeth said.

Weighty responsibilities

The church has to be practical, though, he said, and the historic structures present a challenge to maintain, he said. The church has learned in recent years to build more simply and hope that the churches are just as meaningful to the congregations as they have always been. And for those historic structures that already exist but don’t have enough local support for the maintenance, the church has to prioritize, Morpeth said.

“If it were just a shell of a building with no congregation and no hope of a congregation,” Morpeth said. “We’d have a hard time justifying using donated funds just to maintain a building.”

A case in point is the Silver Chapel on McClellan. The church was donated to the diocese soon after the Army left the post. But in the years that followed, the diocese has been unable to establish a congregation there. There just isn’t enough population there to sustain a third Episcopal church in Anniston, Morpeth said. So the diocese recently made the difficult decision to try to sell the property, he said.

In another instance, the Church of the Nativity in Huntsville, designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1990, applied for and received a federal grant of more than $200,000 to help maintain the church, Morpeth said.

“That’s one instance where we have reached out to maintain a building,” Morpeth said.

But the decisions about maintenance and when it becomes too much of a burden are generally left up to the local churches, Morpeth said.

St. Michael Church has an endowment set up by John LaGarde that helps fund some of the maintenance of the church, Jones said.

“It certainly by no means covers all the expenses,” he said.

The church does hope to grow its congregation and hosts tours and music events to bring people to the church. It hosted a tour Thursday organized by the Anniston Historical Preservation Commission and the Model City Preservation Coalition. But, Jones said, the church does them mainly as a contribution to the community.

A gift from one man

Carolyn Haberer, a member of the church who led the tour, said the history of Anniston and the history of the church go hand in hand.

The church’s founder, John Ward Noble, was a member of one of the founding families of Anniston. In the 1880’s Noble, the Tyler family from Charleston and the Quintard family from New York laid out the plans for the city, Haberer said.

One of the first things they built was Grace Episcopal. But Grace was not big enough for the workers, who lived mainly on the city’s west side, to attend. Noble decided Anniston needed a bigger church, but he did not get cooperation from the other members. So, Noble built the church himself, Haberer said.

“This church is a gift from one man – John Ward Noble,” Haberer said.

The church was built with stone quarried from Rocky Hollow and transported by train to the site at 18th Street and Cobb Avenue. The wooden beams are longleaf pine harvested locally.

A few years after the church was consecrated in 1890, a depression hit. Noble was nearly bankrupted, Haberer said. But when asked if he was sorry he built the church, Haberer said he replied, “‘No.’ He was grateful to God for the opportunity.”

Over the years the church has served as a house of worship and also in other ways to benefit the community. The sister house, built to house the Episcopal sisters, was used to entertain soldiers during World War II, Haberer said. It was a place the soldiers could forget about the war for a little while, she said.

“They also had seven apartments, seven small rooms, that were there for married soldiers,” Haberer said. “For many of the soldiers, that was the last time they saw their wives before they shipped out.”

A reminder of that history lines one wall on the first floor of the bell tower. Forty-eight state flags, some handmade, donated by the soldiers who traveled through Anniston and used the cantina are displayed in a glass case.

Staff writer Laura Camper: 256-235-3545. On Twitter @LCamper_Star.
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