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 this frontier village at the time, 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 a key cotton-producing center. St. John’s kept pace with the town’s growth. In 1855, a new, larger church building was designed by the nation’s then-foremost architects, Frank Wills and Henry Dudley of New York, and built at the other end of the same Perry Street block. This mid-19th century structure comprises the narthex, tower, and most of the nave of the present church.
St. John’s was host to the historic Secession Convention of Southern Churches in 1861. Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederacy, attended services with his wife during his stay in Montgomery. At the end of the war, St. John’s and all other Episcopal churches in Alabama were closed by order of the Union Army. The Bishop of Alabama and military authorities had gotten into a dispute over when the church would reinstate the prayer for the U.S. president. Worship took place in parishioners’ homes for several months until the matter was resolved by intervention from President Johnson. In 1866, St. John’s was the site for the convention that returned the Diocese of Alabama to the National Episcopal Church.
Despite the devastation of the region’s economy by the Civil War and Reconstruction, 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 expand the nave and build the present chancel.
The chancel was further expanded around the turn of the century. As St. John’s ‘downtown’ location was attracting an increasing number of visitors, parishioners decided to relinquish their titles of ownership to 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 nearby Camp Sheridan. In 1918, the church had to close for several months when a deadly pandemic of Spanish influenza broke out at the post and spread to Montgomery. In that same year, the lovely Farley Memorial Chapel was given to St. John’s and was shared with local Lutheran and Greek Orthodox congregations over the next 30 years.
During World War II, military men from Maxwell and Gunter Fields were hosted by church women on Saturday afternoons in the Parish House. This 1888 adjunct to the church, originally built as a Sunday School chapel, served the community-at-large as headquarters for a disabled children’s clinic, a school for the deaf, and in 1945, as a Red Cross distribution center.
The post-war baby boom and subsequent increase in church membership led to the construction of a new Education Building in 1951, and in 1953, to the opening of the St. John’s School. This was Montgomery’s first non-Catholic parochial school and it flourished until competition from other private schools forced its doors closed in 1962. During this historic time period that was the 1950s and 60s, although St. John’s did not take an active part in the Civil Rights Movement per se, it did provide a safe and secure place of worship for the community.
In 1983, St. John’s restored the nave’s 100-year-old hand-painted ceiling medallions depicting Old and New Testament motifs. The removal of layers of accumulated soot and yellowed varnish revealed the ceiling’s original vibrant colors. A year later, the church celebrated its Sesquicentennial with special services, a commemorative dinner, exhibitions, and the planting of a time capsule.
In the early 2000s, the church launched its most ambitious building project to date. Construction included a new classroom and office building, new kitchen, library, children’s chapel, bookstore, and outdoor labyrinth and columbarium. The Parish House was remodeled, stained glass windows were restored, and a new organ was installed, among other improvements.
The Covid pandemic of 2020 led to a 6-month suspension of public worship at St. John’s, but also to the creation of remote programming and the enhanced use of technology in church offerings and communications. The live-streaming of worship services and other gatherings became the new norm. Also launched in 2021 was a 3-year capital campaign to restore the church’s beautiful and historic stained-glass windows. The church’s memorial windows include fine examples of stained-glass art by Charles Connick of Boston and Louis Comfort Tiffany of New York.
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.
St. John’s Archives Committee
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 – 2020 Robert C. Wisnewski, Jr
2020-2021 John P. Leach
2022-Now Duncan H. Johnston