A Brief History of the Episcopal Church in Americus, Georgia

In 1825 the Creek Nation with the Treaty of Indian Springs ceded a large section of land located between the Flint and Chattahoochee rivers. The land consisted of rich soil highly suitable for agricultural development. By 1827 farms and plantations were developing throughout the region. Sumter County was established in 1832 from the Northern portion of Lee County. Americus, the county seat, was laid out on a hilltop overlooking Muckalee Creek, a tributary of the Flint; the town grew steadily in the years that followed.2 The census of 1850 revealed a free population of 6,487 and a slave population of 3,835. 3

Establishment of local churches quickly followed settlement, the three earliest denominations being Baptist, Presbyterian, and Methodist. The first Episcopal service was held in Americus on 13 April 1858. The first bishop of the Diocese of Georgia, the Right Reverend Stephen Elliott, officiated, the service being held in the Methodist church. The next day a meeting was held at the home of Ambrose Spencer in which a new parish with nine communicants was organized and named St. John’s. Little is known about St. John’s but Episcopal Sunday School was held periodically at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Harrold.3

In the heat of the War Between the States and at a time when the war was not going well Bishop Elliott revisited Americus 27April 1864, holding services in the chapel of the Americus Female Institute. St. John’s was renamed Calvary with 29 members in August of 1864. By 1868 the women of the church had raised enough money to purchase the land for a church building. The same site continues until the present time. The cornerstone of the first church, a frame building in the carpenter gothic style, was laid 1 July 1869 and the first service was held on 5 January 1871. Formal consecration did not occur for 14 years, reflecting the custom at the time that all debt must be resolved prior to consecration. 3

Prior to 1905 seventeen rectors served Calvary for periods of a few weeks each to five years. 3 In 1905 a new rector was assigned to Calvary who would have transforming effect on the parish, the community, and the region. The Reverend James Bolan Lawrence, who was to serve the parish for 41 years, arrived, as a modest young man but well educated. Lawrence, a native of Marietta, Georgia, attended the University of Georgia where he received a masters degree in classical studies, being fluent in Greek, Hebrew, and Latin. After a brief period as a teacher at the University of Georgia he attended Columbia Seminary in New York.5

Over time, Lawrence became a community icon loved by all sections of the community. His concern for the poor and disadvantaged became legend. An active missionary, he probably contributed more than any other to Episcopal outreach in southwest Georgia, reaching out to communities such as Blakely, Cordele, Dawson, Moultrie, Benevolence, and his beloved St. James Pennington.5 Brother Lawrence in 1912 published the first and only history of Calvary Episcopal Church (1858-1912). He was widely respected throughout the diocese and was a candidate for bishop at one time.4 He was awarded an honorary Doctor of Divinity (1928) from the University of Georgia and thereafter he became known as Dr. Lawrence.8

His greatest contribution in a material sense was undoubtedly the construction of the present church. At the time of his arrival the initial church was in ill repair. Almost immediately (1908) a building fund for a new church began. By April of 1916 the building committee had written to various rectors in Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina requesting pictures of churches as well as names of suitable architects……popular legend holds that Lawrence on his yearly visits to New York had solicited Ralph Adams Cram services in the creation of a uniquely beautiful church. Cram’s book Church Building, which was republished in 1914, may have also led to his involvement. Regardless, Brother Lawrence was appointed as a “committee of one” to finalize the relationship. The vestry received the first set of plans in late 1916. By April 1920 the first service in the unfinished building was held by the Reverend Mister Lawrence.6

The Cram Church in Americus

Ralph Adams Cram was the leading ecclesiastical architect in America at this time and preeminent gothic scholar-architect of the New World. Mr. Cram was supervising architect at Princeton University and Chairman of architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He was architect of St. John the Divine, St. Thomas Church and St. Bartholomew’s in New York; the chapels at West Point Military Academy and Rice University, Houston, Texas; as well as projects at Sweet Briar College, Virginia; Virginia Military Institute; and Rollins College, Winter Park, Florida.6

The exterior of Calvary Episcopal Church is exposed dark red Georgia brick laid in a Flemish bond. B.C. Hogue of Macon, Georgia, serving as on-site contractor, began construction 25 September 1919 and completed the structure in March 1921. On the 5 May 1930 the church was free of debt.1 It is a strikingly beautiful building. The transepts are expressed as twin gables. The building is built in an east/west axis with the altar facing east. There are two entrances to the narthex, one on the north and one on the south. The west wall contains stained glass windows which were transferred from the original church building in 1934. The walnut screen separating the narthex from the nave contains tinted glass and double doors made of the same tinted glass and walnut wood. Interior walls are finished in white plaster with brick left exposed on the piers and arches as well as on the corbels carrying the roof trusses. Windows, pointed in gothic manner, are placed at intercals, built high from the floor and formed of green, tan, and pink cathedral glass, one piece being brought from the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Reims, France. Twin double arches formed of massive brick pillars, topped with carved limestone caps form entrances to the transepts. The roof above, of exposed trusses stained dark, moves unbroken from entrance to sanctuary. The chancel is elevated from the nave by one step. The reredos on the east wall of the sanctuary, installed in 1925, was also commissioned by Cram-Ferguson and carved by Johannes Kirchmeyer, a German carver. This walnut screen is beautifully carved with a crucifixion scene in which a majestic, vested Christ is flanked by the blessed Virgin Mary and Saint John, all three of whom are borne by the tree of life which merges with the cross itself. Kirchmeyer’s works are considered masterpieces of the twentieth century American Gothic Revival. The Moller pipe organ was installed in October 1929 as a gift of the Harrold family. The wood work and console were also designed by Cram-Ferguson and made of walnut which blends with the paneling and choir stalls. The pulpit, lectern and walnut paneling which were designed by Cram-Ferguson, were added in 1936.6 The choir stalls which are on the north and south sides of the chancel were added in 1941.

Saint Ann’s Chapel, which was given by the Reverend Mister Lawrence in memory of his parents, Robert DeTreville Lawrence and Annie Elizabeth Atkinson Lawrence, is in the south transept. It contains a plaster vault above the altar and a simple reredos which blends with the older wood work.

The hand carved walnut high altar, designed by Cram-Ferguson and built by Schwamb Associates of Boston, Massachusetts was installed in 1948 replacing the old one from the original church. In 1956 new pews of solid walnut designed to match furniture and paneling were given by a member of the parish, replacing the old pine pews that were in the original building.

The Parish Hall and Additional Buildings

The Reverend William Baxter arrived as the rector of Calvary in 1947. Almost immediately he began an active campaign to build a parish hall in honor of Dr. Lawrence. Because of the high regard that the community held for Dr. Lawrence funds were quickly raised from throughout the community, state, and country. T. Firth Lockwood, an outstanding regional classical architect of Columbus, Georgia was selected. Lockwood was careful in his design to insure that the new hall was architecturally compatible with the existing Cram church proper. It was built of identical red Georgia brick and other architectural features of the Cram design, including interior plaster and timbers. In addition to the great hall with stage and fireplace, the addition included rector’s study, sacristy, kitchen, restrooms, acolyte and choir rooms, and an administrative office. On 26 February 1950 the addition was dedicated by the Right Reverend Middleton Barnwell, Bishop of Georgia.7

Because of space concerns a free standing small Sunday school building was built on the northeast corner of the church property and was named the Henry K. Rees Building in honor of the first active rector of Calvary. The building was dedicated by the Right Reverend Albert R. Stuart, Bishop of Georgia, on 27 October 1961.

It would be almost 40 years before any other significant building projects occurred. By the late 1990 the original Cram church was in need of attention. Though structurally sound many repairs were needed, including replacement of the slate roof which had previously been removed, re-plastering and interior painting, cleaning timbers and wood work, new carpeting and pew cushions. In addition, Lawrence Hall had become problematic. In 1972 a parking lot was built on the northwest corner of the church property. The effect of this addition was to reorient the entrance to the parish hall from the original entrance on the southeast corner of the building to the kitchen area.

In early 2000 under the leadership of the Reverend Reginald Gunn, the restoration of the Cram church and significant additions were made in the parish hall. Martin Johnson, a Calvary parishioner and an architect, donated his services. Under his professional direction a master plan for the entire campus was developed. The plan included the restoration of the Cram church, reorientation of the parking lot and the parish hall entrance as well as the addition of a new kitchen, bathrooms, and enclosed loggia surrounding a cloistered area. In addition, a master plan for the gardens was developed that included a second memorial garden to join the previous 1994 addition.

The exterior façade of the parish hall was vastly improved with the addition of an open covered loggia which connected the new entrance to the parish hall with the previous free standing Sunday school building. The parish hall addition was dedicated 18 May 2003 by the Rt. Reverend Henry I. Louttit, Jr., Bishop of Georgia

In summary, the Cram church was restored and preserved for posterity while the parish hall and grounds were adapted to serve the parish and community for many years.