Keeping the Faith: The Life and Times of St. James Episcopal Church
By Melanie Torbett
The historical information & parishioner quotes below come from the commemorative book Keeping the Faith, written by parishioner Melanie Torbett and published in 2017. It is available for purchase by contacting the church office @ 445.9845.
The statue of St. James in the photo above was made by parishioner Janet Ahrens and was her gift for the 175th church anniversary.
St. James has been a worshipping community in the Alexandria/Pineville area for 175 years and, like all churches, the people of St. James have struggled, learned, and grown with deep joy in living as Jesus' disciples and Episcopalians in the CENLA (Central Louisiana) region since 1844. This one page cannot tell all the stories or do justice to the women and men who gave so much for this congregation and community, yet we hope there is enough of a glimpse of milestones to give us an appreciation for them.
A gathering of Episcopalians in the Alexandria/Pineville area predates the official founding of the church. In 1839, a group of people told Leonidas Polk, then Bishop of Arkansas and on tour down the Red River, "the friends of the Church were few, but desirous of a minister." In May of 1844 Polk, now Bishop of Louisiana visited the fledgling congregation and within a month the church was officially received as one of the earliest churches of the Diocese of Louisiana. St. James has been served by 16 rectors, which you can find by clicking here, the first being Amos D. McCoy from 1847 to 1857. The first Sr. Warden, or head of the lay leadership, was Dr. John Pintard Davidson, who was elected in 1848; his 3rd-great-grandson, Andrew Texada, was elected to the same role in 2014.
1844 to 1944
The beginning years of the church were difficult, as you can imagine, given the Civil War and subsequent disorganization. Yet, over the next few decades, the church began to grow, and the congregation constructed a new structure in 1871 (as the old one had burned), and missions were organized in nearby Marksville, Boyce, and Bunkie. The church opened a school for grades 1-12 in 1898, and it flourished for 18 years.
Mt. Olivet Chapel was founded in Pineville as a mission of St. James in 1858, following a time when women of the church were ferried across the Red River to conduct Sunday School classes. Today, the church owns and manages Mt. Olivet cemetery and the chapel's recently refurbished office is used by the bishop and diocesan office. Click here for more information about Mt. Olivet.
Groundbreaking for a new St. James church (pictured at left) began in 1925, and completed in 1926, with a total cost of roughly $150,000. It was during this period the church installed stained glass windows, crafted by the Jacoby Art Glass Company of St. Louis. These 41 windows depict biblical stories, the disciple James, and both Anglican and Episcopal Church history. Despite the Depression, the congregation paid off the construction debt by 1935!
As 1940 dawned and the country geared up for possible entry into World War II, St. James and central Louisiana welcomed scores of soldiers who filled three local Army training camps. The church recorded 136 of its members serving in the military in 1944, going off to who knew where...yet taking with them a memory of St. James.
Post-WWII to 1980
According to Melanie Torbett, following WWII St. James' growth was "stoked as soldiers came home. Families grew and the church was a vigorous, integral part of the community and culture." By 1951 enrollment in Sunday School had burgeoned to 240 children, ages 3 to 18, led by 38 teachers and staff. With the influx of children to the church, the newly formed Associate Vestry led the way to create a school, opening its doors in 1952. It was in 1958 that the church purchased property on Horseshoe Drive, a developing area in south Alexandria; this land was later donated to the diocese, leading the way for the construction of what is now St. Timothy's Church.
As we know from American history, the 60s & 70s were a unique time of change in our nation's culture. St. James celebrated its 125th anniversary in 1969. The General Convention of the Episcopal Church voted in 1970 to allow women as convention delegates and vestry members, and three women were elected to the St. James vestry within 3 years. The 70s also mark a time when the church was so damaged by a kitchen fire that the Day School was moved across town to St. Timothy's, and later moved for a time to the former Sears department store on Bolton Avenue; vestry meetings and other committee meetings were held in parishioners' homes, and church offices and Parish Hall were rebuilt in 1977. It was also in the early 70s that the church started an after-school tutoring program as part of its outreach; remnants of that ministry continue today as volunteers tutor students from Rugg Elementary twice weekly in an after-school reading enhancement program.
1980 Toward a New Millenium
One of the most notable events in the history of St. James occurred in 1980 when the Diocese of Louisiana divided into two geographical areas: the Episcopal Diocese of Western Louisiana and the Episcopal Diocese of Louisiana. First housed in downtown Alexandria, the Western Louisiana diocesan offices later relocated to Mt. Olivet in Pineville. St. James had already donated the parish house (current diocesan offices) and chapel in 1973, paving the way for a smooth office transition.
Over the decades, centrally located St. James has hosted numerous diocesan meetings and ordinations, including the conventions to elect the second (Robert Hargrove, 1990-2002), third (Bruce MacPherson, 2002-2012), and the fourth (Jacob Owensby, 2012- current) bishops of the diocese.
Bach's Lunch program - a free, noonday musical offering for the community - was originally endowed through the Virginia Klock Music Memorial; it was later expanded and continues today as the St. James Concert Series, funded by The McCormick-Smith Fund, Inc., bringing both local and international artists to the church for free performances.
In a major community outreach project, St. James clergy and congregation linked arms in 1984 with other area faith-based organizations to start and sustain the Shepherd Center, a nonprofit social services agency to serve less fortunate individuals in CENLA. After more than 30 years of ministry, the Shepherd Center closed in September of 2015. The remnants of that ministry continue today through the generosity of those who contribute to a ministry fund, managed by the church staff, that assists a few neighbors with utility and, in a lesser degree, rental assistance.
In 1994, St. James hired its first female assistant priest, and in succeeding years, increasingly included women in clergy and lay leadership roles such as curate, deacon, junior and senior wardens, and verger. Deborah Heathcock was called to be the 15th rector of the church in the summer of 2015. Today, St. James remains committed to welcoming and including others to both lay and ordained leadership no matter one's gender, race, or sexual orientation.
Encouraged by Bishop Jake, St. James and other diocesan churches adopted a heightened missional focus in recent years, seeking to put our faith into action in the greater community. In 2015, for instance, lay folks at St. James began a community breakfast ministry, held on the first Sunday of each month, in which both local residents in need and parishioners could sit together for breakfast.
The church hosts diocesan events on a regular basis, from ordinations to committee meetings, given the church's central location in the diocese.
Tim Heflin was called to be the 16th rector of the church in May of 2019, and he brought to St. James a broad history in ministry, both ordained and in hospice work prior to ordination. He completed his tenure at St. James at the beginning of 2022.
Click here for a list of the 16 rectors of St. James.
Parishioner reflections through the years:
Janet Dawkins: "The people at St. James have been wonderful to me and there is a closeness that is not always spoken."
Alex Norton: "My first memory of St. James is going to chapel, then later, singing songs and being in the nursery. My memories really began when I became an acolyte. I enjoy feeling like I'm part of the worship service."
J.T. Norton: "I remember going to church one day and watching [my brother] Alex change into acolyte robes. My mom told Miss Holly I was ready to be an acolyte even though I was only six years old. Miss Holly said I could be an acolyte when I turned nine. We went into the church and took our seats and then Miss Holly came out and said she needed me to be an acolyte, too, because someone didn't show up. I quickly changed into robes and I started carrying a torch. My mom took lots of pictures of me."
Dee Drell: "The church, and this one in particular, is a place of quiet constancy in an ever-changing world. As you ponder this history, try to remember that history itself has value in understanding life today. History does not reflect the perfect. It reflects, instead, our striving as humans to understand all things, including our origins."
Micheale Dixon Agee: "My family moved to Alexandria during the summer of 1997, and we joined St. James Episcopal Church shortly thereafter. I participated in the youth group, where we had many adventures."
Stella Craig: "I learned to dance - jitterbug - on the same slab as the current Parish Hall. Richard Culpepper taught a few of us the basic Lindy steps while we were in the eighth grade...the main attraction at EYC in those days on Sunday nights was the fact that we could dance at St. James. That drew kids from other churches."
John Robert: "St. James was not immune from the struggles of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. One Sunday, as a group of about eight men, climbed the steps and entered the west doors, David Crockett and my great-uncle George Texada warmly greeted the visitors, and escorted them into the Nave, seating them in the front pew on the Gospel side. It was a great day to be a crucifer."
Sara Marshall: "When getting my four children and myself ready for Sunday School and the church one day - with my husband Gregg's help, of course - I stuck my feet in the closet to put on shoes. It wasn't until we arrived at the Parish Hall I discovered I had one black patent leather shoe and one brown suede. I shrugged my shoulders and got through Sunday School and church service, but back in the Parish Hall during coffee/visiting time, some of my children's friends sitting on the 'sidelines' started giggling and pointing at my shoes. I was caught! In telling this story over the years, I have discovered I'm not the only person that has been a victim to hurriedness and/or children."