Our History​

Emmanuel Episcopal Church
 

Emmanuel 1856 - 2003

 

Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us.  Matthew 1:22

 

 

The Celts described places where heaven meets earth as Telling Places. Emmanuel is often described as magical, mystical, quaint, an historical treasure, but these terms fall short. Emmanuel is a Telling Place.

 

A pioneer work of art built of native fieldstone dug from Southern farmland in the 19th century, Emmanuel is the oldest public building in Lee County, Alabama. Though built by a small group of Episcopalians determined to create a church for themselves on the Alabama frontier, Emmanuel has been a landmark to all of Opelika for 130 years. From cradle to grave, generations of Episcopalians and non-Episcopalians alike have found comfort in the Kinkadesque sight of the small stone church on the corner of First Avenue and Eight Street.

 

Emmanuel's founding members were those pioneers who crossed the Chattahoochee River in the 1830's and 1840's to settle the Alabama wilderness. Since most of the South was already inhabited, East Alabama was a much desired territory from which settlers had been held at bay by the Creek Indians until 1836. With the Creeks defeated and the Indian Removal Act of 1830 underway, the government purchased land from the Indians, and the settlers purchased it from the government by a type of homesteading called “entering.” The Trail of Tears was followed by a flood of settlers driven by what was referred to as “Alabama Fever.” These pioneers, searching for rich, fertile land anticipated to be “almost paradise” indeed found a primeval forest of virgin timber, destined to become the ancient wood of Emmanuel.

 

Opelika was part of Russell County when it was first settled (Lee County did not exist until 1866 when it was carved out of Chambers, Macon, Russell and Tallapoosa Counties). The Russell County settlers who founded Emmanuel began their common worship without a church home, as families scattered across the territory met in each other's homes to worship, including the Penn Young home now known as Spring Villa. They worshiped in this manner for 25 years.

 

Why 25 years without a church? This home worship was described by Walter C. Whitaker in History of the Protestant Episcopal Church in Alabama 1763-1891 as a somewhat common practice in Alabama at that time. He wrote that this “very houseless and hopeless condition of many congregations was long their protection against the gnat-like persecution that sectarian villagers were so well skilled to practice; and it is equally true that so soon as these congregations began to achieve a local habitation, disdainful or pitying tolerance was succeeded by aggressive opposition, characterized more by ignorant fanaticism than by Christ-like zeal.”

 

According to Whitaker, it was not easy being Episcopalian in 19th century Alabama. Due to the Anglican origin of the church, a prejudice against the church began prior to the Revolution and continued to exist at the end of the 19th century. “So the church had to await her time and opportunity. Here and there, throughout the territory of Alabama, a few Church families, emigrants from the states, were thrown together, and irregularly held lay-services, supplemented at long intervals by the chance visit of some clerical relative, friend, or itinerant. Many of these early Churchmen became discouraged at the apparent forgetfulness of their Mother and united themselves with sectarian bodies, chiefly Methodist and Baptist...”

 

The founders of Emmanuel were a small group, perhaps just over 20 adults, but the strength they could not claim in numbers was made up for in loyalty to their faith. These were the devout Opelika Episcopalians who did not become discouraged and unite with other faiths during a quarter of a century of worship without a church home.

 

Were it not for the railroad, perhaps there never would have been an Opelika Episcopal Church. After Opelika was incorporated in 1854, Atlanta railroad developer Lemuel Grant donated lots in the newly formed town to the different religions. In 1857 the Episcopalians worshiping in the countryside could finally begin planning to build a church home. The promise to donate land is thought to have been made in 1857, resulting in the organization of the group of eight families and five individuals into the Trinity Mission in 1858 and the church's admission to the Alabama Diocese of the Episcopal Church on May 5, 1860, at St. Paul’s church in Selma, Alabama. The deed from Grant conveying the land "on Washington Street" to the church was dated May 10, 1861 (in 1861 Emmanuel was located at the corner of Washington, which later became First Avenue, and Chambers, which later became Eighth Street). This deed was, ironically, dated the same month the Alabama Diocese succeeded from the National Episcopal Church. With the nation and their church in turmoil, Emmanuel was born.

 

A fund raising campaign began as early as 1860 to raise money to build a church. Two members in particular are remembered in the history of Emmanuel for their remarkable effort. The diary of Sarah M. Clayton Jeter reveals that she and her friend, Caroline Culver, traveled by buggy throughout the region, collecting pledges for the building of a church. Between 1861 entries recording “received the news of the taking of Ft. Sumter” and 1862 entries describing “working for the soldiers and attending to the hospital” Sarah described collection efforts that left no stone unturned, including going “down among the Baptist to beg.” Caroline collected $1600 in pledges, a Bible and a Prayer Book from sources in Columbus, Montgomery, Atlanta, Marietta and Opelika, while Sarah collected $2300 in subscriptions from Opelika and the surrounding communities.

 

At the site where the stone church sits today the parishioners built the first frame church based on drawings made by Columbus, Georgia, architect, Joseph Morton. The name of the church was changed from Trinity Mission to Emmanuel (God is with us) at the time the building was consecrated on November 9, 1862, "in these Confederate States of America." The church was consecrated by The Right Reverend Richard H. Wilmer, Bishop of the Protestent Episcopal Church of Alabama, the courageous bishop who, during Reconstruction, defied military orders to pray for the authorities and took an early stand for Freedom of Religion in America.

 

The years immediately following the Civil War were harsh, a time of bitter poverty and despair as the parish struggled to survive. In 1869 the first frame church was destroyed by a tornado, but rather than surrender, parishioners saved the rubble with which a rectory was built. Worship continued in the rectory until that building was destroyed by fire in 1874. From there parishioners moved to The Pinkard Academy to conduct services until moving into the second church which stands today.

 

In his history of Alabama’s Episcopal Church, Walter C. Whitaker wrote that in the early 1870's “were born the congregations at Birmingham, Talladega, Decatur, Union Springs, and Evergreen; while Montgomery (St. John’s), Selma, Opelika, Greensboro, Demopolis, Hayneville, and Montevallo, were building themselves houses of worship, noble or simple, ornate or unpretending, according to their worldly circumstances.” Opelika’s church was being built simple, unpretending and strong.

 

The stones for the current church were dug from the North Opelika Nelson Clayton Plantation, the remains of which are located about one-half mile west of the LaFayette Highway. The Claytons were members of Emmanuel and the parents of Sarah M. Clayton who collected money for the building of the first frame church. Legend reports that the vision of a stone church belonged to Sarah Carruthers Clayton, a devout Episcopalian, who insisted on the fieldstones being dug from her land and transported to Opelika for use. Parkins & Allen of Atlanta designed the building, making Mrs. Clayton’s dream a reality. Whether Mrs. Clayton ever saw the stone church she imagined prior to her death in 1873 is unknown. While the cornerstone for the stone church was laid on Easter Day 1872, the impoverished parish could barely afford to build the new building. Vestry minutes record that it was finished bit by bit as money became available. The building was first used for services in 1876 prior to its completion.

 

Newspaper accounts reveal that by 1888 the parishioners worshiped within today's stone walls, but they did so with the building unplastered, with no altar platform or altar equipment, no narthex, no vestry room, no benches and with only temporary fillings for windows; they used a screen for the priest, common chairs for the people, and knelt on a cushioned board on the level floor around a covered store-box for an altar(!). The sum of $1200 had been spent, exhausting the resources of Emmanuel's 20 members. A letter was sent in February of that year to the diocese at large by Bishop Wilmer describing Emmanuel as “unfinished - a rude structure at best - almost a scandal.” Bishop Wilmer’s appeal for help went on to describe how the means of the people were exhausted, the congregation without resources and the church building only nearly completed. He requested the aid of all who love the Church in Alabama. The generosity of churches and individuals across the southeast resulted in completion of the building.

 

Emmanuel has been a mission church for most of its life. In the 1890's the mission ran a race with Holy Innocence in Auburn to build the first rectory; the winner would be the location where the regional rector would reside. So began the construction of Old Vic, the grand old house that sits behind the church which was completed in 1903. Emmanuel lost the race, no resident rector came and Old Vic was rented for half a century.

 

The loss of the race to build a rectory most likely shaped the future of Emmanuel for half a century. Many of the original families died, and membership dwindled until sometime around the 1920's, church services at Emmanuel were held only monthly in order to maintain regular services on the property to satisfy the requirements of the original deed that the property be used for services else revert to the City of Opelika. During those years of Emmanuel’s semi-slumber, communion was held at 7:00 a.m. so that the shared rector could return to Auburn for services there. During this time communicants of Emmanuel, who at one time dwindled to only a handful, either went to Auburn for full services or attended Emmanuel for lay services at 11:00 a.m. every Sunday except on fifth Sundays when full services were held. The Jeter sisters, Rennie and Dalene, who were descendants of the Clayton Family, kept up the church grounds to the best of their ability.

 

Emmanuel continued as a part-time mission church until the mid-20th century when in 1947 a group of five members traveled to Birmingham to visit the bishop and ask for the diocese’s support in obtaining a permanent resident rector. In 1952 Emmanuel had its first full-time priest and the first vicar to live in the Old Vicarage that had waited half a century to house a priest. The church was refurbished in the 1950's as membership grew. Cathedral glass was donated by members, destined to become Emmanuel’s signature lavender rose colored windows. The altar window was donated by St. Mary’s in Birmingham, a new communion rail was added, and the land and house next door to the church on First Avenue were donated to Emmanuel by Sarah Glenn Hudmon Pitts. The house was used by the church and eventually torn down to make room for a parish hall which was built with funds provided by Mrs. Glenn Pitts and dedicated in 1964. Mrs. Glenn Pitts also donated the walnut paneling in the nave and many other items of beauty.

 

Over the years the members of Emmanuel have remained loyal to the structure, making few changes in the original structure. In 1994 the St. Mary’s altar window was retired and replaced by a window designed by Keith McPheeters to match the assorted shades of lavender found in the church windows (in 2002 plans are underway to hang the 1950's altar window in a place of honor in the breeze way connecting the nave and the parish hall). The wooden cross over the window is made of koa wood from the rain forest of Hawaii, constructed by a Hawaiian craftsman and given in memory of one of Emmanuel’s former rectors who lived many years in Hawaii. Another addition was a stunning stained glass windows placed over the entrance to the building.

 

In 1996 the church was renovated by Holmes & Holmes of Mobile, Alabama, with great care given to maintaining the architectural integrity of the 1872 building.

 

Emmanuel’s design suggests the influence of 19th century Anglican architect John Ruskin who provided the Ecclesiologist style modeled after the simplicity and clarity of fourteenth century English parish churches. Not found only at Emmanuel in Opelika, this style continues to grace Alabama’s countryside with an “other world” rural European charm found in small, historical Episcopal churches. Emmanuel is not graced by a single ornate architectural feature. Its beauty rests in the simplicity and quiet charm of a 19th century country Anglican church. Nestled in azaleas and dogwoods, the structure is as rural and close to the earth as the community in which it stands. From the street its lavender rose windows reflect the light entering the windows on the opposite side of the church in a way that suggests to passers-by the light of God within the stone walls baking golden brown in the sun. In a region where the sky is dotted with pointed steeples, Emmanuel's tiny Celtic cross is an old world relic. Despite its 20th century restoration, Emmanuel remains as described by a now gone church matriarch, Placid Fletcher: "The sandstone has been repointed, and the chimneys, which indicate that wood stoves once were used for heating, have been retained. Though the chancel area has been remodeled, the interior of the church still reflects the influence of John Ruskin on nineteenth century Anglican architecture. The simple, straightforward Victorian town church design, uniting vertical and horizontal elements in a Gothic pattern, and the heart pine, evident in the pegged triangular trusses, the wide, single-board pew backs, and the beaded paneling, connect the church to its Christian heritage, its Episcopal traditions, and its earthly location."

 

Religious and social traditions remain as well. A block from the railroad defining Opelika, Emmanuel's rector pauses to let the whistling train pass in order to be heard. After services the children race to ring the bell on the lawn beside the ancient pine tree, and they chase fireflies in the summer twilight after Wednesday night service. It is a place where parishioners observe the old custom of workdays to fellowship and clean the grounds and where, at Easter, fresh flowers of azaleas, daffodils and dogwood are cut and placed in containers to sit on the windowsills around the nave. At Christmas the church is greened with cedar and pine, the advent candles are lit, and Christmas carols are sung at a Christmas Eve midnight service in the candlelight of the nave. Upon entering the nave, the worshiper might wonder if he has been transported back to a quieter, more gracious time.

 

A photograph of Lucy Cowan's 1899 wedding reveals that parishioners today sit on the same 18 benches that existed in 1899 with the simple cross carvings on the sides of the benches at the base. The sturdy old wood of the benches are made of single board heart of pine made from the virgin timber found by the pioneers who rushed into Alabama.

 

Against all odds, Emmanuel the church has lived for 166 year, and the stone church has endured for 130 years as a sacred place of worship, binding together the independent thinking Episcopalians who cherish the church, the building and its history. Emmanuel is, however, not just the story of the Episcopalians of East Central Alabama. A complete history of this church would reveal the interest and generosity of many non-Episcopalians whose gifts to the church from near and far enhanced its beauty, made its very existence a possibility and contributed to making it a true community treasure.

 

In this Telling Place those who enter are touched by the power of a place that has quietly stood as God’s house during three centuries of turbulent Alabama American history. Those who know its history are humbled by the sincerity of pioneers who gratefully knelt here before a store-box altar over one hundred years ago and, despite the obstacles, had enough faith to name their church "God is with us".

 

"Bless us, Lord, this day with vision.  May this place be a sacred place, a telling place, where heaven and earth meet."

 

Celtic prayer of blessing

 

 

History compiled by Jan Neal, 2002

© 2020 by Emmanuel Episcopal Church Opelika. all rights preserved.

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