“My becoming an Episcopalian was very difficult for my family,” she said. “But I found St. Peter’s offered not just a source for nourishing your spirit, but offered you a family and a community of people who supported and sustained you. I never had that anywhere else.”
A sense of family and community is often mentioned by those who reflect on what St. Peter’s means to them, and, after four months of events dealing with the church’s history, the May 4-6 climactic celebration of their 150th anniversary is aptly called a “homecoming.”
The theme of the weekend is “St. Peter’s: Past, Present, & Future,” and special activities – including receptions and special meals – will be anchored by worship services led by three Episcopal bishops, each of whom served as rector of the 966-member congregation.
“This is important because we are a part of all that has been,” said Bryant, who serves on the church’s vestry. “The life of any church is evolving, and this celebration gives us a time to reflect on everything that has happened before and to reflect on where we’re going in the future.”
Organized on May 12, 1851 in a meeting at the Lafayette County courthouse, the congregation still worships in the church building it constructed in 1860. The first resident priest was the Rev. Frederick A.P. Barnard, who was also a professor at the University of Mississippi in Oxford and later became chancellor.
From the beginning, the church felt a special sense of mission to the college.
“One of the first things I became aware of was the church’s significant evangelistic outreach to students, faculty, and staff,” said Bishop A.C. “Chip” Marble Jr., bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Mississippi, who served first as Episcopal chaplain at the university (1971-74) and later as rector of the parish (1974-78).
“St. Peter’s was and is a vital evangelical center preaching the gospel and reaching out,” he said. “So many who had outgrown their former faith or affiliation discovered the Episcopal Church for the first time at Oxford.”
The mix of gown and town was an exciting environment for Marble at that time.
“I found a very intellectually stimulating environment there, engaging faculty, staff, and students around various issues, moral and social and philosophical,” he said. “And little did I know that I was being prepared to be the eighth bishop of Mississippi, just like St. Peter’s helped prepare the seventh and ninth bishops (Bishops Duncan M. Gray Jr. and Duncan M. Gray III). It was just a wonderful experience serving at St. Peter’s and being among the people there.”
Gloria Kellum, vice chancellor for university affairs, and Charles Wilson, director of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture, are St. Peter’s Sesquicentennial co-chairs.
“More than 100 people have been involved in our planning,” said Wilson, “and it’s a time when St. Peter’s is refining and communicating its sense of community. One-hundred-fifty years is a long time, but we have grown a great deal, especially in the last 10 years, and a lot of people are new to Oxford and St. Peter’s and don’t know the church’s past.”
In particular, Wilson feels it’s good to remind the congregation of St. Peter’s historic role in reaching out to the community at large.
“We were the church where the first Head Start was started, and we still do Leap Frog for at risk children,” he said. “St. Peter’s played a role in the first public housing in Oxford. That was in 1972. So, in a variety of ways the church has tried to work cross-culturally. Right now we have a Hispanic service, and a special relationship with Second Baptist in Oxford. We do joint events with them like picnics and youth activities.”
For Kellum, the 150th-year celebrations remind the congregation how the church is both different and the same as it was in the past.
“In some ways it’s very much the same,” she said. “The sense of community is the same. It’s very much a family church, and a very comfortable place to raise your children.”
Kellum, who joined St. Peter’s 34 years ago, sees the biggest change in the church is the size of the congregation. Growth, however, has not affected its sense of closeness.
“Sometimes a church loses its feeling of family, of support, and special relationships as it grows, but St. Peter’s hasn’t lost that. It’s a very special place whether you are 2 or 102.”
Many who are not a part of the congregation have witnessed the commitment of the church to reach out to all people. Such was the case of the Rev. Murray Bullock, who retired as rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Columbus after serving 17 years as rector. Bullock is currently the interim rector at St. Peter’s.
“I have known of this parish for a long time, especially of its role in social matters,” he said. “They were always concerned for all people no matter who they were, and they continue to do that in their present ministries. They are willing to take the risk of loving people.”
One of the risks St. Peter’s was willing to take involved Mississippi’s racial problems. Decades before other churches and denominations made a commitment to racial reconciliation, the priests and members of St. Peter’s were trying to bridge barriers and stand for justice.
Kent Moorhead, an independent film maker in Oxford, has filmed many of the church’s racial reconciliation events over the last 10 years. Moorhead is working with a $1,500 grant from the George Street Memorial fund at St. Peter’s, and the church is raising the additional money needed to complete the film.
The church gained special recognition during the 1960 crisis when James Meredith became the first black student to enroll at the university. The congregation’s priest, the Rev. (later Bishop) Duncan M. Gray Jr. worked both in the midst of the subsequent riot and in the days following to persuade people to act peacefully and calmly.
“We were there during some very tumultuous times,” said Gray of his time at Oxford. “But as I look back, my overwhelming feeling is how many of the folks at St. Peter’s loved and supported us during those rough times.”
Gray, who served at St. Peter’s 1957-1965, is returning to Oxford for the homecoming.
“I go back to the sesquicentennial with a grateful heart and with excitement,” he said. “They have done so many great things in terms of outreach, and I look forward to celebrating with them.”
Bishop Duncan M. Gray III had served as priest of St. Peter’s 15 years when he was elected bishop coadjutor for the Mississippi Diocese in February 2000. Like his father, Bishop Gray Jr., and Bishop Marble, who both also served as rectors of the church, Gray looks forward to returning to Oxford for the homecoming. St. Peter’s will always be very special to him.
“One of the most remarkable things about St. Peter’s is the congregation’s profound movement inward into a spiritual depth that is centered at the altar,” Gray said. “That worship is an offering of themselves, broken though they may be, to God to be used by God as instruments of grace and hope and healing and reconciliation in the world.”
The outreach, therefore, for which St. Peter’s is widely known is conceived in worship, according to Gray.
“This dual movement of the spiritual life of going deep within and going significantly beyond into the world carrying what they have tasted at the altar is quite remarkable,” he said.