CHURCH OF THE NATIVITY Episcopal, Huntsville, Ala
(A reprint from the program issued by the Church on its Centennial Anniversary, 1843-1943.)
The first officially recorded item which indicated any interest in an Episcopal Church in Huntsville is found. in the journal of the Convention of the Diocese of Alabama, held in Tuscaloosa on January 3, 1831. The item reads as follows: “William Acklin and James Penn, Esqs., of Huntsville appeared and produced satisfactory credentials of their appointment to this Convention as lay delegates. They took their seats accordingly.”
Not a recognized mission station
One year later at the Diocesan Convention, held also in Tuscaloosa, these same gentlemen appeared and submitted a communication from the “Vestry and Wardens of the Protestant Episcopal Church at Huntsville” pointing out the fact that “the present is the most Auspicious time for the commencement of a church in our town” and “that each day of delay detracts from the numbers of citizens who might become members of our congregation.”
The communication was signed by B. S. Pope, Sam Brech, R. Lee Fearn, W. Clarke and John Brahan. These records indicate that a group of Huntsville citizens considered themselves to be an Episcopal congregation. But one wonders about the credentials of these gentlemen as official delegates.
Huntsville was not at that time an officially recognized mission station. There was no church building. As far as can be ascertained, there were no services conducted by a clergyman. Although there was an interested group in Huntsville, and some members of that group were called the Vestry and Wardens of the Church, the congregation had no official status in the Diocese and no legal organization.
The first serious effort
However, two years later, Huntsyille was made an object of missionary endeavor by the Board of Domestic Missions of the National Church. The Rev. John Murray Robertson, a priest from the Diocese of North Carolina, was sent to Huntsville, on March 7, 1834, to begin missionary work in this territory.
Trouble with the law and the stage
The Rev. Mr. Robertson and the congregation had a hard time finding a place to worship. For a short time the services were held in the Court House, but legal authorities objected to the use of the Court House for religious purposes. Next, a theatre on East Clinton Street was borrowed. But the congregation was dispossessed by a company of actors. Finally, the Masonic Lodge Room was procured, and services were continued in that building until the end of the year 1835. It was during the Lodge Room period that the first bishop made a visitation in Huntsville. The Rt. Rev. James H. Otey made the trip from the neighboring Diocese of Tennessee and confirmed Miss Henrietta Brown; who was a teacher in the Huntsville Seminary.
Mr. Robertson had a most disheartening experience with his congregation. It is recorded that “the missionary experienced little sympathy; and finding that nothing was done toward erecting a church or providing for a minister, he retired at the close of 1835 to his plantation in Jackson County.”
For seven years no further effort was made to organize a parish. One wonders what became of those gentlemen who had expressed themselves as so keenly interested in the establishment of a church. It is not recorded that any delegates attended the Diocesan Conventions during those years. Episcopal Church life in Huntsville went to sleep.
Finally, two clergymen visited Huntsville in December 1842, and through their efforts, a meeting of the Episcopalians was held and an organization of a parish effected on December 17th. Mr. George P. Beirne presided at the meeting, and, in addition to himself, there were elected on the Vestry the following men: Henry M. Robertson, John Ogden, James Penn, and J. Withers Clay. The Parish was named the “Church of the Nativity” because of the approaching Christmas season.
Beginning of official life
A Church is not an Episcopal Church until it is received into a Diocese under the authority of the Bishop. So the official life of the Parish began when a delegation from the newly elected Vestry attended the Diocesan Convention in May 1843, and asked that the Church of the Nativity in Huntsville be received into the Diocese. Of course, the request was acceded to, and shortly thereafter the Vestry elected as the first Rector of the Church, the Rev. F. H. Laird, who arrived to take up his duties in November. The Parish was not self-supporting at this time. The Board of Domestic Missions of the National Church assisted in the maintenance of Mr. Laird. This Rector also found difficulty in the matter of securing a place for worship. The Presbyterians lent their church building for the first services.
Then the congregation worshipped for a while in the schoolroom of Mrs. Jane L. Childs. And then, the Church seeming to be on some better terms with the Law, the U. S. District Court Room in the basement of the Court House was secured as a place to worship. During Mr. Laird’s rectorship in 1845, the lot at the corner of Eustis and Green Streets was bought from John Y. Bassett for $500.00 and the construction of a church building was begun. But Mr. Laird resigned in 1846. He never conducted a service in the new church for which he planned.
New Rector – Days of Progress
In 1847 the Rev. Henry C. Lay, of the Diocese of Virginia, was elected Rector. After a few more months of services in the Court House, the church building being completed, the congregation first worshipped there in August of 1847. Within the same month, the Vestry declared the Church to be self-supporting and thereafter no missionary funds were used for the support of a minister in Huntsville. The Rev. Mr. Lay served as Rector for twelve years. Those twelve years prove themselves to have been the period of greatest progress that the Church of the Nativity ever experienced in so short a time. It is stated in the records that at the time Mr. Lay came to Huntsville as the Rector, there were but twelve communicants actually resident or available, and of that twelve there was only one male member. No doubt there were a number of interested members of the congregation who had not been confirmed and were not listed officially as communicants. At that time, apparently, it was not required that a vestryman be a communicant of the Church.
During Mr. Lay’s rectorship, the Church, realizing that for many years it had been an object of the missionary interest of others, set out to repay that debt in some measure by engaging upon missionary activities. In 1851 the congregation began to furnish half the support of the Rev. T. A. Morris who was a missionary in this section of the Tennessee Valley. Mr. Lay came to Huntsville as a deacon, and he left twelve years later as a .bishop, having been elected Missionary Bishop of the Southwest by the General Convention of the Church held at Richmond in 1859. During Mr. Lay’s rectorship, the membership grew so fast that it was necessary to plan for a new building.
When Bishop Lay severed his connection with this Parish in 1859 he left the present church building as an inspiring memorial to his labors. The Church purchased a Rectory on Green Street, opposite the present church building, during that time. A Parish school was established. All debts were paid with the exception of $2,606, which was still owed on the new church structure. As is so often the fate of ministers, he was not privileged long to enjoy the fruits of his labors. The first service was conducted in the present building on Easter, 1859. It was the following November that Bishop Lay moved away to administer his new jurisdiction,—”the Southwest.” He wrote humbly of himself; “The Rector has ministered regularly to this people, with less success than he could desire, with infinitely more than he has deserved.”
The Church Building
It is a matter of amazement to many of us that a building of such size and great beauty could have been built by the members so soon after the founding of the Parish. The record is quite clear as to how it was done. The money was raised by subscription among the members. Sixty-three members made cash contributions amounting to $29,291,93. The individual amounts noted range from $4,000 to $10.00. Trinity Church, Wilmington, Delaware, sent a contribution of $25.00. Other money was obtained from the sale of some property. The total cost of the church building and furnishings amounted to $37,565.13. Every cent of this was paid with the exception of $2,606.00 by 1861. It seems that the balance of $2,606 was the chief topic of discussion at the Vestry meetings for many years thereafter, A glance around the church at the names inscribed on the windows tells of many families prominent in the congregation in those early days.
It was in July 1860, that the Rev. John Munro Banister, of Greensboro, Alabama, was called to be the Rector. It is understood that when Mr. Banister came to Huntsville from Greensboro, the Rev. Richard Hooker Cobbs, who had been Mr. Lay’s assistant, and who was in temporary charge of the Parish, moved to Greensboro to be the Rector there. Dr. Banister is thought of by the members of the Parish as the Patriarch. He was rector for forty-six years, and rector-emeritus for nearly two years. All through the trying days of the War between the States, he administered the affairs of the Parish. Many lived and died and knew no other minister but Dr. Banister.
During the War, in Dr. Banister’s time, it is related that when Huntsville was occupied by Union soldiers, a non-commissioned officer of the Union forces was instructed to seize the church and use it for a stable. When the force arrived to take possession it was brought to an abrupt halt before the door. Above the door were inscribed on the marble slab the words: “Reverence My Sanctuary.” When that inscription was reported to the commanding officer, he ordered that the church be not molested. For a period in 1864, the church was closed by order of the commanding general, and the Rector was ordered to cross the river and remain within the Confederate lines.
During Dr. Banister’s rectorship, we note some interesting changes. Another Rectory was purchased on Adams Avenue and the old one sold. At the time of the building of the new church the source of all the income for the support of the Parish was the renting of the pews. On the Monday after Easter every year the members would bid for the pews. No offerings were taken during the services until 1864 when the Rector was requested by the Vestry to announce that an offering would be taken on every Sunday. That system lasting until 1903. It was at that time the Vestry considered it wise to abolish pew rents as a method of Church support, and instead, to raise the budget by annual subscription. The original church building was sold to the Colored Methodist Church in 1878 for $ 700.00. The structure was razed at that time and the materials used to construct the Colored Methodist Church building which still stands on North Jefferson Street.
In 1886 the present chapel was completed—a gift from Mrs. Wilson Gary Bibb as a memorial to her husband, Wilson Gary Bibb. At the time of Dr. Banister’s resignation in 1905, he became Rector-Emeritus. With his death in 1907, a long and dearly remembered chapter in the life of the Parish was brought to a close.
Two Short Term Rectors
The next Rector was the Rev. Willoughby N. Claybrook. Mr. Claybrook came to Huntsville from Tyler, Texas, to be the assistant to Dr. Banister in 1904. When Dr. Banister resigned “because of continued age infirmities” in 1905, Mr. Claybrook was elected Rector in his place. Mr. Claybrook was a young man of great energy and initiative, but he did not remain long as Rector. He resigned in 1907 to assume the duties of missionary in the Diocese. Succeeding Mr. Claybrook as Rector there came to Huntsville the Rev. Alexander C. McCabe, Ph. D., who assumed his duties in July 1907. Dr. McCabe resigned in 1909.
After Dr. McCabe’s resignation the Vestry called the Rev. Gary Gamble from the Diocese of Virginia to be the Rector of the Parish. Mr. Gamble took up his residence in Huntsville on July 1, 1909. One thing that attracted Mr. Gamble to Alabama was the fact that his twin brother was at that time Rector of St. Paul’s Church, Selma. Both clergymen continued their faithful ministries in Huntsville and Selma, respectively, until the time of their retirement from the active ministry. During Mr. Gamble’s rectorship, a rectory on Franklin Street was purchased. During this period it was increasingly apparent that there was not sufficient space on the church properties for the Sunday School and other activities of the Parish. And so, in 1912, the store building which adjoined the church lot on Eustis Street was bought and converted into a Parish House.
Mr. Gamble retired in 1938, and, since that time, he has been of great service in the Diocese doing supply work wherever he was needed. Mr. Gamble is the only living former Rector of the Church of the Nativity. It is with a great deal of pleasure that we welcome here today this faithful and fearless servant of God who was the spiritual leader of the Parish for more than a quarter of the Century of its existence.
The Rev. Randolph R. Claiborne, of Macon, Georgia, was next called to be the Rector. Mr. Claiborne began his ministry in Huntsville on September 1, 1938. During his rectorship, a new rectory has been built on McClung Street, on a beautiful lot which has housed the Rectors of the Parish in the last one hundred years. It is seen from this brief sketch that there are a great many things in the history of the past One Hundred years of which the Church of the Nativity may be justly proud.
The Church has taken its place as a spiritual force in the community. It has assumed its responsibilities in the affairs of the Diocese. It is generously supporting the missionary work of the Church at home and abroad. There are at this time on the official communicant list 325 names. Some of our members no longer live in Huntsville, but for reasons of strong sentiment wish to keep their names on the register as communicants. Some of them are attending schools and colleges. Many of them are serving in the armed forces of the Nation. There are many factors that make us feel that the future holds great progress in store for the Church of the Nativity.
With humble hearts, let us all resolve that during the next One Hundred years our chief aim will be the unselfish serving of our Heavenly Father in grateful thanksgiving that He has blessed us with so fine a heritage. At the time of the Nativity of our Lord two thousand years ago, God revealed Himself in human form. Living true to the name of our Church our purpose rightfully will be the revealing of God’s goodness, God’s mercy and God’s love in the daily life we live. Insofar as we are true to that purpose, then, we, too, will be instruments of God’s blessing. In our own Parish life and fellowship, we will find a foretaste of His Kingdom.
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