Disciple: Still a Sacred Space
A new vision for All Saints’, Warrenton, honors the past and serves the future
By the Rev. Dr. Brooks Graebner
Church buildings are deeply cherished by parishioners, and any time a church closes there is a sense of grief and loss in that local community. The 2018 closing of All Saints’, Warrenton, after a century of sacred use, was no exception.
But All Saints’ isn’t just one closed church among others. It has profound significance for the Black Episcopal church nationally, and its heritage should matter to us all.
First and foremost, because All Saints’ is a shrine to a man regarded by his contemporaries among Black Episcopalians as a great figure, a priest worthy of emulation and praise: It is the Thomas Cain Memorial Church. That is the name on the church’s cornerstone, placed in 1914.
[Image: Present-day All Saints’, Warrenton stands as a testament to the Black Episcopalians who built and worshipped within its walls. The All Saints’ Revisioning Committee imagines a future in which the legacy of Black excellence continues to support the Warrenton community. Photo by Dru York]
THE CORNERSTONE OF BELOVED COMMUNITY
The Rev. Thomas Cain was a native of Warren County, born into slavery in 1843. At a young age, he moved with his family to Petersburg, Virginia, where they were associated with Grace Episcopal Church.
At the close of the Civil War, Cain was 22 years old, but he could neither read nor write. So, when an Episcopal Freedman’s School was started in Petersburg at the newly organized St. Stephen’s Church, Cain attended, became literate and advanced to the point of going from there to Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. Upon graduation from Lincoln, Cain returned to teach at St. Stephen’s School and to prepare for the priesthood. He was the first Black candidate for ordination in the Diocese of Virginia, and he served in that diocese for 10 years before going to St. Augustine’s in Galveston in 1887.
While in Texas, Cain achieved national prominence by virtue of his election as a deputy to General Convention in 1889 and again in 1892. He was the first, and, for many years thereafter, the only Black priest in the entire assembly—the first Black priest to sit as an equal in the House of Deputies and to participate fully in the councils of The Episcopal Church.
So when Cain and his family were killed in the great Galveston flood of 1900, our archdeacon at the time, the Rev. John Pollard, a classmate and friend of Cain in the Diocese of Virginia, proposed that a church be built in Warrenton in his memory. Pollard further proposed that the funds to construct the memorial be raised from Black Episcopalians across the nation. That intention was finally made good 18 years later when newly consecrated bishop the Rt. Rev. Henry Beard Delany conducted the first service at All Saints’ in December 1918.
Consider the time in which this was occurring. The 1910s were the decade when so many of the Confederate memorials, monuments to white supremacist attitudes we now wish to renounce, were erected across the South. But at that very time, Black Episcopalians were erecting a very different kind of monument in Warrenton: a monument to a vision of inclusion and equality; a monument to a man who stood for and exemplified the possibility of a Church in which Black and white Christians could sit together, deliberate together and act in concert. Here was a priest with seat and voice in our national assembly, something that was being denied in so many dioceses across the South and was imperiled in this diocese as well. So All Saints’ is a monument we can cherish. Here rests the very cornerstone of beloved community.
That’s the first point. The second is that All Saints’ reflects the life and ministry of Blessed Henry Beard Delany in a profound and personal way. Delany was priest-in-charge at All Saints’ for about 20 years between 1892 and 1915, and the building of the Thomas Cain Memorial was a project dear to his heart and the centerpiece of his time as the diocesan archdeacon between 1908 and 1918. It may be that he actually designed the building and selected the building material. He certainly poured his heart and soul into raising the funds for its construction, especially through his leadership in the national conference of Church Workers Among Colored People—the forerunner organization of the Union of Black Episcopalians. So preserving All Saints’ is also an important way of preserving and highlighting Delany’s legacy.
But the litany of great Black Episcopal figures associated with All Saints’ and Warren County doesn’t end there. The missionary bishop of Liberia from 1945 to 1964, the Rt. Rev. Bravid Harris, was born and raised in Warrenton; baptized, confirmed and ordained at All Saints’, he became the first Black American bishop with oversight of a diocese. Archdeacon Odell Greenleaf Harris was a pioneer for civil rights in the Dioceses of Southern Virginia and Atlanta; he, too, was ordained and served at All Saints’. The Rev. George Freeman Bragg was the leading spokesman for Black Episcopalians during the first half of the 20th century, and the Rev. William Alston was the first Black seminary graduate in the Episcopal Church. All are Warren County natives, and all their stories deserve to be lifted up.
Simply put, All Saints’ should be hallowed for its unparalleled significance to the story of the Black Episcopal Church. We need to tell that story, celebrate that story and preserve this building as a way to ensure its story is given the prominence and respect it deserves.
MORE THAN A SHRINE
But All Saints’ should be more than a shrine. There are unmet needs in Warrenton and Warren County, one of the poorest counties in North Carolina. And so, even though All Saints’ is a closed church from a congregational standpoint, in that there aren’t enough active members to support a free-standing congregation, that doesn’t mean the Episcopal Church and the Diocese of North Carolina don’t have a continuing mission to the Black community of Warren County.
In this regard, it is helpful to recall that the genesis of All Saints’ mission in the early 1890s was the creation of a parochial day school, which for a number of years was the only school where the Black community in Warrenton could learn to read and write. So, it feels right that a restored and renewed All Saints’ once again be home to community outreach.
All Saints’ will retain its identity as a sacred space. Although closed, All Saints’ remains consecrated. It still retains an altar and a baptismal font and, once restored, it can be used for worship on an occasional basis.
Of course, none of this will happen without considerable investment, careful planning and sustained commitment. To that end, the Rt. Rev. Sam Rodman has appointed an All Saints’ Revisioning Committee, under the leadership of our missioner for Black ministries, the Rev. Kathy Walker, and he has granted it status as a special ministry under the provisions of diocesan Canon 20. The committee includes diocesan and community leaders, gathered around the former members of All Saints’, who remain at the center of the work happening.
The committee has been at work now for about two years. In that time, it has hosted several events intended to bring attention to important aspects of All Saints’ heritage. One such event was the September 2020 commemoration of the laying of the church’s cornerstone, with remarks by Rodman and former All Saints’ member Portia Hawes. Because of COVID-19 restrictions, this commemoration took place in the street in front of the church building, and attendance was restricted to 30 people. But it was covered on the front page of The Warren Record. More recently, the committee helped to host the diocesan History Day, where attendees had the opportunity to gather inside All Saints’ for the first time in years, to see the building, view exhibits and hear about the work of the Revisioning Committee.
Renovating the church building itself is a major undertaking and, if it is to be done well, requires the expertise of architects and engineers. The committee has retained the services of EVOKE Studios, an award-winning Durham-based architectural firm. The principals in the firm trained with noted Black architect Phil Freelon, best known for designing the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture. EVOKE has been contracted to make a pre-design study and analysis of the building to help the committee understand what it will take to renovate All Saints’ and make it fully functional for programs and events. Right now, EVOKE is concentrating its attention on the condition of the roof structure, which has been a problem for All Saints’ dating back to its original construction. Until the roof issues are addressed, moisture will continue to find its way into the building and cause deterioration of the interior finishes. The committee anticipates receiving the report from EVOKE later this spring and beginning work on the roof this summer.
[An architectural rendering of a possible interior renovation of All Saints’ makes room both for worship and celebrating the church’s long history. Rendering by EVOKE Studios]
But the committee has not waited on architectural design work to make other improvements to the property. In fall 2020, the committee engaged a Virginia-based firm, Epiphany Studios, to make basic repairs to the windows and remove the large Harris Memorial stained glass window for safekeeping. Reinstallation of that window and renovation of the other stained glass will become part of the larger restoration project. The committee has also taken responsibility for the upkeep of the grounds and done some much-needed cleaning, landscaping and repainting.
With minimal expenditure of funds, the committee has been able to restore the adjoining rectory to use. Much of this work was undertaken through a “sweat equity” arrangement with a local carpenter, who made much-needed repairs to the house in exchange for the opportunity to live there with his wife for a number of months in 2021. Now the house is being leased to a local nonprofit, the Living and Learning Youth Center, which provides life skills classes to teens and their parents. Classes include anger management, positive parenting and substance use prevention. The director of the center, Terry Alston Jones, works closely with the North Carolina Cooperative Extension in Warren County to identify at-risk teenagers and assist them in seeking alternatives to incarceration through dispute mediation and restorative justice. Jones and her program are an excellent beginning for the kind of missional partnerships envisioned for All Saints’ once the building is renovated.
The committee has been deeply gratified in our initial work to receive encouragement and grant support from the North Carolina Episcopal Church Foundation, Preservation Warrenton and the Marion Stedman Covington Foundation. It has also received generous individual donations totaling more than $15,000, including the offering from the diocesan Special Convention in March 2022.
Of course, the Revisioning Committee is still in the beginning stages of bringing new life to All Saints’, and the work cannot be done by the committee alone. But the members are encouraged by the signs of new life already at work. May all whose efforts help bring forth the new life of All Saints’ take heart in this Doxology: Glory to God whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine: Glory to him from generation to generation in the Church, and in Christ Jesus for ever and ever. Amen.
The Rev. Dr. Brooks Graebner is the historiographer for the Diocese of North Carolina and a member of the All Saints’ Revisioning Committee.
Tags: North Carolina Disciple / Racial Reckoning, Justice & Healing