Disheartened by racial segregation imposed even when gathered in prayer, a group of the faithful set out to establish their own churches and Minnesota’s African-American Episcopal congregations were born.
What would become St. Philip Episcopal Church of St. Paul held its first worship service in 1888. St. Thomas Episcopal Church, in Minneapolis, launched a year later.
White Episcopal Church leaders of the time doubted the fledgling churches would last. But St. Philip and St. Thomas became social and spiritual centers of the families they served and safe harbors where African-Americans could speak freely and mobilize in the struggle for civil rights.
This weekend, the congregations, which merged in 2008 and are now known as Holy Trinity Episcopal Church, will celebrate 130 years with a Saturday night gala and special Sunday service. It’s the only Episcopal Church in Minnesota founded by African-Americans, and today’s members say they remain focused on racial healing and equity.
“The church has been a voice of racial reconciliation in the community,” said the Rev. James N. Wilson, Holy Trinity’s priest-in-charge.
Holy Trinity has hosted a series of community forums on race, religion and community at the building they purchased in 2017, at 1636 W. Van Buren Av. in St. Paul. They invited their neighbors, and church member Julia New-Landrum said recent forums on the history of Jim Crow and how microaggressions affect communities of color today have attracted overflow crowds to the church basement.
“We are shocked most of our audience has been white. This is a good thing,” New-Landrum said. “This is a place people can come and talk about things and feel safe.”
New-Landrum, who is coordinating the anniversary celebration, said reaching this milestone has provided an opportunity to dig into the congregation’s history — reminiscing with church elders and scrolling through handwritten logs kept by church leaders that date to the early 1900s.
Initially, African-Americans who came to Minnesota for jobs with the railroad, packing houses and as domestic servants worshiped at white Episcopal churches, New-Landrum said. But they were forced to sit apart from white churchgoers, which ignited interest in forming African-American churches.
St. Philip worshipers met in a store room on Rice Street for several years before raising enough money to buy an abandoned Methodist church, according to an article in the Dec. 25, 1900, edition of the St. Paul Globe. St. Thomas moved into its building at 4400 4th Av. S. in 1903, according to Minnesota Historical Society records.
The congregations shared a priest from 1905 until the 1930s.
Families celebrated milestones including baptisms, weddings and funerals at the churches. And there were social activities, too, said New-Landrum, who grew up attending St. Philip. Men planned fishing excursions. Children took tap lessons and teens attended dances at the church.
“We did everything out of the church,” New-Landrum said. “We were really this tight-knit family.”
As unrest around racial inequities swept the country, St. Philip and St. Thomas church leaders assumed leading roles in the Civil Rights-era struggles here in Minnesota.
Rev. Denzil Carty at St. Philip served as chairman of the Minnesota Council for Civil and Human Rights in the late 1950s and advocated for laws banning housing discrimination, at one point calling out a state senator who refused to sell homes to black families.
Across the river, the Rev. Louis W. Johnson at St. Thomas passionately urged the Minneapolis City Council to pass a civil rights ordinance in 1966.
Declining membership eventually forced the two congregations to merge in 2008. They sold their buildings and started to lease space at the current Holy Trinity location. Wilson said the merger was difficult for many, and membership dropped. Rumors even swirled that the congregations had dissolved.
Wilson said he hopes to use this 130th celebration to let the community know they’re still alive and all are welcome.
They took ownership of their building last year, and “we decided we were going to paint the doors red,” New-Landrum said. “It’s a welcoming door and it represents the blood of Christ.”