History of St. John’s

The oldest Episcopal parish in Montgomery, St. John’s was organized in 1834 by a small group of pioneer settlers. Although Episcopalians were outnumbered by other denominations in the frontier village, by 1837, St. John’s parishioners had bought and occupied all 48 pews of the first brick church in town, a modest building on the corner of Perry and Jefferson Streets.

Less than a decade later, Montgomery had become the capital of the state, and the key inland shipping center of the region produced more cotton than any other place of comparable size on earth. St. John’s kept pace with the town’s growth. In 1855, a new, larger church building, designed by the nation’s foremost church architects, Wills & Dudley of New York, was built at the other end of the same Perry Street block, facing Madison Avenue. This mid-19th century structure comprises the narthex and nave of the present church.

St. John’s was host to the historic Secession convention of Southern Churches in 1861. During his stay in Montgomery, Confederacy President Jefferson Davis attended services with his wife, an Episcopalian. In 1865, St. John’s was closed, with all the other Episcopal churches in Alabama, by order of the Union Army. Worship took place in parishioners’ homes until the church was reopened in 1866.

Despite the devastation of the region’s economy by the Civil War and Reconstruction (its aftermath), the parish continued to thrive. By 1869, more room was needed for the ever-increasing number of worshipers. The small church on Jefferson Street was torn down and its bricks used to build the present chancel and sanctuary.

Further expansion took place in 1906, at which time Italian mosaic tile was laid on the floor of the enlarged chancel. As the church’s “downtown” location attracted an increasing number of visitors, parishioners decided to relinquish their titles to ownership of the pews. A sign near the entrance proclaimed “All Pews Are Free. Strangers Are Welcome.”

During World War I, St. John’s was host to many of the Army recruits trained at Camp Sheridan, a tent encampment three miles beyond the city limits. In 1918 the church was closed, with other city buildings, when a deadly epidemic of Spanish influenza broke out at the post and spread to Montgomery. In that year, the lovely, small Farley Memorial Chapel was given to the church. Over the next two decades, the Chapel was lent to other denominations–the Lutherans and the Orthodox Greeks–as a meeting place.

During World War II, military men from Maxwell and Gunter Fields, including groups of British cadets, were entertained by church women on Saturday afternoons in the Parish House. This adjunct to the church has served the community-at-large as a headquarters for a disabled children’s clinic, as a school for the deaf, and, in 1945, as a Red Cross distribution center for clothing to tornado refugees.

The history of St. John’s has been inextricably woven with that of the Deep South. Although the church did not take an active part in the Civil Rights Movement of the early 1950s and ’60s, St. John’s provided a safe and secure place of worship for the community during those stressful times.

The church’s many interesting memorials include the ceiling medallions, which were originally painted in 1869 on the wood plank ceiling from designs by the Rector Horace Stringfellow and restored in the 1980s. St. John’s is also home to the 1885 chime of bells in the tower, which dates from 1855; over 400 prayer kneelers covered in needlepoint by church women since 1976; and various adornments in the courtyard garden. Among the church’s memorial windows are fine examples of stained glass art by Charles Connick of Boston (1923) and Louis Tiffany of New York (circa 1924). A changing display of church memorabilia is maintained by the Archives Committee in the hall beyond the sacristy door.

In 2008, St. John’s completed its first renovation since the 1950s.  The parish house and kitchen have been completely renovated.  A new Christian education wing is now fully integrated into the parish’s programs.  The old Christian education and office staff building is now being occupied by a refurbished archives space, a purpose-designed bride’s room, and other important areas of ministry. There is also a parish bookstore.

St. John’s takes pride in being one of Alabama’s most enduring landmarks and looks forward to a future as vibrant as its past.

Text by
Judy Oliver

Rectors of
St. John’s Episcopal Church

1835 – 1840 William Johnson, Jr
1844 – 1848 Nathaniel P. Knapp
1848 – 1853 J. H. Morrison
1854 – 1858 Nicholas Hamner Cobbs
1858 – 1868 John March Mitchell
1869 – 1894 Horace Stingfellow, Jr
1894 – 1897 W. Dudley Powers
1898 – 1901 Edgar Gardner Murphy
1902 – 1917 Edward Ellerbe Cobbs
1918 – 1936 Richard Wilkinson
1936 – 1944 Edgar Ralph Neff
1945 – 1956 James W. Brettman
1957 – 1984 Charles H. Douglass
1984 – 1994 Albert D. Perkins III
1995 – Now Robert C. Wisnewski, Jr