St. Cyprian's Episcopal Church
St. Cyprian’s rich history began in the late 1800s when it was established as a place of worship in the Episcopal tradition for former slaves and other African Americans in St. Augustine. The present church building was consecrated in 1900. For many decades the parish thrived as a cornerstone of spiritual life in the Lincolnville neighborhood of St. Augustine, and teachers, shop owners, attorneys, doctors, and dentists were counted among the membership during its prosperous years. Although St. Cyprian’s was not directly involved in the Civil Rights movement when it came to St. Augustine in the 1960s, there are stories of individual members of the congregation supporting the cause from behind the scenes. In the generations that followed, the church’s membership declined and the building suffered from deferred maintenance as the Lincolnville neighborhood experienced its own decline.
In the late 1990s, the people of Trinity Episcopal Parish offered their generosity to help renovate the building and renew the spirit of the congregation. However, when the national Episcopal Church began welcoming and affirming gays and lesbians in its life and leadership, a significant group of St. Cyprian’s parishioners left the Episcopal Church in late 2006. Following the schism, a faithful remnant of St. Cyprian’s parishioners, committed to the Episcopal Church and its position of inclusion, resolved to rebuild the congregation and its ministry. Today, St. Cyprian’s is honoring the legacy of its origins and is committed to providing a welcoming worship experience to all of God’s children.
THE BIRTH OF ST. CYPRIAN'S CHURCH
Trinity Parish is St. Augustine’s first Episcopal church - the oldest non-Roman Catholic church in Florida, in fact. Trinity did not escape the racial turmoil of the post-Confederate south. In the face of the racial segregation at the time, St. Augustine’s African American churchgoers chose to attend African American churches, but none were Episcopal. However, one woman was too devoted to her faith to give it up. Mrs. Julia Jackson was from the Bahamas, where the Episcopal Church had great success among the African American community. When Mrs. Jackson moved to St. Augustine and visited Trinity nearly thirty years after the Civil War, she could see why African Americans were uncomfortable there. She wrote to Bishop Edwin Gardner Weed with her concerns. Then she invited some friends and started preaching her faith wherever comfortable space was available. Bishop Weed soon sent a deacon to take over for Mrs. Jackson, and in 1893, the Florida diocese reported the first African American Episcopal congregation in St. Augustine. It consisted of twenty members meeting for services in a rented building.
The African-American congregation named their new Episcopal church after Saint Cyprian (200-258) of Carthage in northern Africa, whose life bears a striking resemblance to that of Saint Augustine (354-430), also of Africa. In the third century, Cyprian wrote, “When the stain of my earlier life had been washed away by the help of the water of birth, then straightway in a marvelous manner doubts began to be resolved, closed doors began to open, dark places to grow light; what before had seemed difficult was now easy, what I had thought impossible was now capable of accomplishment” (Treatise on the Grace of God). It is assumed that Saint Cyprian was a person of color and therefore was a logical choice to be the patron saint of this new congregation.
ST. CYPRIAN'S AS A BUILDING
From 1893 until the turn of the century, the new St. Cyprian’s Episcopal congregation met in a variety of temporary facilities. In 1899, their devotion was rewarded by the generosity of a wealthy member of their white sister church, Trinity Parish. Emma White was the wife of a New York stock broker. As the story goes, Mrs. White heard the St. Cyprian’s congregation singing hymns in a store-front accommodation. She embarked on a campaign to provide them a home worthy of their faith. Mrs. White donated a lot on the corner of Central Avenue and Lovett Street. Then she solicited donations from her friends in Florida and Connecticut. She also provided the building plans, which resembled her own house and church in Connecticut. The congregation pitched in the rest, and a local African American builder headed up the construction.
In 1900, Bishop Edwin Gardener Weed proudly consecrated the unique and beautiful new church in the presence of the congregation, the local newspaper, and many St. Augustine residents. Its steeply pitched roof, heart pine interior, and diamond-shaped windows made it an immediate treasure for the city. The newspaper called it “very comfortable and churchly,” and went on to say, “It is a great day for the colored people, especially those who have been brought up in the Episcopal church but for lack of one attended the services of other denominations, and may now worship in their own.”
ST. CYPRIAN'S AS A CONGREGATION
After its consecration as a mission church, Bishop Weed appointed the Rev. Fr. Peter W. Cassey as its first deacon-in-charge. Fr. Cassey came from a northern family of African American abolitionists. After a renowned career as an educator and a pastor, and having started several African American Congregations, Fr. Cassey moved to St. Augustine at the age of 70. For the next seventeen years, Fr. Cassey built the church up into a solid, comfortably segregated pillar of Lincolnville. When he died in 1917, the local paper said “the deceased was known for his kindness and good works among the colored people here, and they turned out in large numbers to pay their respects; the church could not hold all who sought to be present at the service, which was presided over by Bishop Weed. A large concourse formed the procession to the place of burial.”
A plaque in St. Cyprian’s sanctuary honors their beloved Fr. P. W. Cassey, and he certainly left his mark on the church. The standard was set for working in and with the community around the church.
By the 1950s, many of St. Cyprian’s members were succeeding as school principals, teachers, doctors, dentists, and other professionals. One of those professionals was Dr. Rudolph Gordon, America’s first African American maxillo-facial surgeon; he built the medical-dental office at 79 Bridge Street. He and his equally accomplished wife, Rosalie, are memorialized for their church involvement by a stained-glass window at St. Cyprian’s. Rosalie was further memorialized by a tribute Representative John Mica presented to Congress in 2004. The Gordons met at a St. Cyprian’s church picnic.
When the civil rights movement came to St. Augustine, several African American churches hosted rallies, meetings, and training for the movement. However, St. Cyprian’s chose to remain on the sidelines. Rather than risk losing their jobs for participating in demonstrations, many at St. Cyprian’s supported the movement from behind the scenes. And when many local African American teens skipped school to attend demonstrations, most of the St. Cyprian’s parents made sure their kids got on the school bus. Overall, the congregation stayed safe, albeit somewhat isolated.
In the decades following the civil rights actions in St. Augustine St. Cyprian’s members aged gracefully, while a new day dawned around them. Few of the children who grew up in St. Cyprian’s remained at the church. Some took their college degrees to larger cities, such as Washington D.C., and Los Angeles, California. Others found a spiritual home in other area churches. By 1990, St. Cyprian’s had lost its choir and Sunday school. As membership declined, so did its finances and the structure of the historic building.
In the late 1990s the charming little building Emma White had sponsored, almost a century before, was nearly falling down on the few remaining worshippers in the pews; it was in desperate need of repair. Trinity Parish came to the rescue. Long-time Trinity members Margie Rahner, Mike Strock, and The Rev. Deena Galantowicz, applied for historical and other grants and rallied support to save St. Cyprian’s. Help also came from the Diocese of Florida, the National Episcopal Church’s Women’s United Thank Offering, St. Thomas, Fifth Avenue, New York City, and the Episcopal Cathedral in Indianapolis. The building was restored magnificently. Once again, St. Cyprian’s is a historic gem in Lincolnville, both to observe from the outside, and certainly to worship inside.
A NEW FUTURE
During the early part of the 21st century, the disagreements in the national Episcopal Church concerning the role of gays and lesbians in the life and leadership of the Church came to a head. In late 2006 a large group of parishioners left St. Cyprian’s, and the Episcopal Church, to form Christ the King Anglican Church. The loss of so many parishioners was a devastating blow to those who remained. However, under the able leadership of the Rev. Deena Galantowicz, the remnant congregation weathered the crisis and began the process of rebuilding the faith community. The Rev. Perry Smith followed Pastor Deena and served St. Cyprian’s for over a year before accepting a call to St. John’s Cathedral in Jacksonville. In November 2008 the Rev. Ted Voorhees was appointed St. Cyprian’s Vicar by Bishop John Howard.
Today, St. Cyprian’s congregation is growing in numbers, ministry, and spirit as it worships in the beauty of a 113-year-old church. The people of St. Cyprian’s celebrate diversity and are committed to radical hospitality that welcomes all into its life and leadership. They honor their African American heritage through various activities including a monthly Jazz Vespers service and an annual event celebrating the life of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. They honor the original purpose of the church by offering it as a haven to people who feel uncomfortable worshipping elsewhere. St. Cyprian's is a congregation that is dedicated to honoring diversity and maintaining progressive, inclusive standards for worship.