BRUNSWICK, GA. | Speaking in the modest country church Deaconess Anna Ellison Butler Alexander founded in 1894, the Most Rev. Michael Bruce Curry said she lived the same “Why not” life as Christ during a service Saturday to celebrate her life.
The deaconess is buried in front of the original unpainted two-story Good Shepherd Episcopal Church she founded in the countryside on Pennick Road . It’s also where she founded a parochial school in the building in 1902 and began teaching children to read. In 1907, she was ordained the first African-American deaconess in the Episcopal Church.
She is buried directly in front of the church and school were a monument provides all her history except for her birth, said Anna Iredale, a publicist for the Episcopal Church.
“We say 1865, the year of emancipation,” on Butler Plantation where her parents were newly freed, Iredale said.
Saturday’s event was to have been held in September, but Hurricane Irma caused its delay, said organizer Zora Nobles, who described herself as a 63-year-old cradle Episcopalian.
“My father was taught here,” she said of James Nobles Sr. “Him and his entire family of siblings. There were five of them.”
“She was a rock. She was the one who encouraged him to go to college,” at St. Paul’s Episcopal College in Lawrenceville, Va. “That’s where he met my mother.”
She did that from the church and school where she lived in a tiny two-story addition at the back of the building. Her living area and kitchen were downstairs and her bedroom was upstairs, Nobles said. Alexander walked everywhere from Darien where she first taught at St. Cyprian’s Episcopal Church and along the roads to the mostly black settlement on Pennick Road, Nobles said.
Her encouragement resulted in a long line of college graduates among the black students who weren’t allowed in schools with whites and, for many, segregated schools for African-Americans were out of reach in Brunswick.
Samuel Holmes was a student for only a few weeks and left for the elementary school for blacks the county had opened “down yonder” in Sterling.
If children misbehaved, Deaconess Alexander didn’t send notes home because that would have been pointless, Holmes said.
“She’d go meet the parents. They couldn’t read or write. She’d tell them what was going on,” he said.
Holmes said he had to move into Brunswick for high school because, unlike for whites, there were no school buses to take students to Risley, a school for African-American children.
For those who had no relatives they could live with in Brunswick, “our education ended here,” Holmes said.
After a couple of years in college, Holmes joined the Army where he spent 25 years that included three tours in Vietnam.
Because the sanctuary of the second churchthat sits right beside the one Alexander founded was so crowded, Holmes watched by closed circuit in the parish hall. Next door, Curry was in his usual form, gesuturing as he preached loudly and smiling broadly. Every pew was filled as were folding chairs and teens sat in the center aisle.
It had been cold in the little church surrounded by a morning frost, but a heater began working just before Curry began preaching and, the 27th presiding bishop of the church noted, the Holy Spirit sent energetic young people and the room grew warm.
He said things were different from when Alexander lived and, if she were looking down, she would see people of all ethnicities and ages. Since it’s an Episcopal church, there’s no shouting, but he figured “Deaconess Alexander is shouting.”
Quoting Georgia Bernard Shaw, Curry said some people see things as they are and ask why while Alexander saw things that weren’t and asked “Why not?”
“Jesus showed us the way to be the ‘Why not?’ people of God,” Curry said.
“Live in the direction of God’s dream, not in the world’s nightmare,” he said.
Curry said as he prepared to come to Brunswick from North Carolina, he looked at photos of Alexander and tried to get into her mind and saw peace.
“It wasn’t a feigned serenity. This woman was centered on God,” and although she endured the adversity imposed on her race, she was not embittered, Curry said.
“I think she’s a sign of what a deep and real faith can do in a life filled with adverse circumstances,” he said earlier. “She’s proof one life can have great impact.”
He met with Samuel Holmes and two other of her students, Walter Holmes who lives nearby and Celestine Alexander Cartwright who came from Delray Beach where she moved as a child to live with an aunt so she could get an education past elementary school.
“It was school, and she was strict,” Cartwright said.
Looking at the old building, she said, “I remember where the blackboard was with the alphabet on it,” she said.
“All of us had to walk here,” Samuel Holmes said. “Five or six miles from the woods.”
Asked about his education there, Walter Holmes joked, “I learned to spell two or three words.”
The church is now led by co-pastors, the Rev. John Butin of St. Simons Island, a white man, and Canon Julian Clarke, of African descent who moved from the Virgin Islands.
After the morning service, Curry led a revival service for an expected 1,100 under a tent at Honey Creek, an Episcopal retreat off Dover Bluff Road in Camden County.
Iredale said part of Curry’s purpose with the morning service was to make more people aware of Alexander before the vote on making her a saint.
“We want to raise her name recognition,” Iredale said.
She’s been dead since 1947, but Curry said, “Goodness is stronger than death.”