Our Mary Story – Saint Paul’s 90th Anniversary Sermon

You can listen to yesterday’s sermon over on the Saint Paul’s website, or read it here.

On December 20th, 1924, in the home of Mrs. J.H. Shepherd, Saint Paul’s Episcopal Church in Foley, Alabama was founded.  We can assume that some prayers were offered, but in good Episcopalian fashion, we hear nothing about that in the official record.  Instead the two sentence account of that first gathering reads like the minutes of a short vestry meeting, listing only the officers elected: A.A. Rich, Warden; Dr. John Stark, Treasurer; E.D. Hanson, Secretary; W.W. Manning, and E.A. Smith, Trustees.  The Rev. Joseph R. Walker or Mr. Walker, as they called their priests in those days, was the priest in charge of mission outposts in Foley, Daphne, Robertsdale, Loxley, Bay Minette, Flomaton, Atmore, and Brewton.  As you might assume, clergy leadership in these early days was hard to come by, and the Episcopal Church in Baldwin and Escambia Counties was necessarily built on a foundation of strong lay leadership, which has sustained this congregation throughout the highs and lows of the last nine decades.

As the story goes, Saint Paul’s got its name from none other than Mr. John Burton Foley himself.  His children attended a boarding school in New Hampshire called Saint Paul’s, and Mr. Foley was so impressed with Saint Paul’s School that he suggested the newly founded mission in the town that bore his name should have Saint Paul as its patron saint as well.  As I read over the lessons for this week and thought about the history of this parish I began to realize that though Saint Paul’s is a good and appropriate name for this community, it could just as easily been named Saint Mary’s as for 90 years now, The Episcopal Church in Foley has lived into Mary’s model of faithfulness: seeking to share the love of God with the wider world.  Of course, the name Saint Mary’s would have never flown in low-church, Protestant, evangelical South Alabama.  Even hundreds of years after the Reformation, churches formed in response to the excesses of medieval Roman Catholicism aren’t quite sure how to handle the Mother of our Lord.

At times, the Blessed Virgin Mary has been elevated to near godlike status in Roman Catholicism.  In the peak of the Middle Ages some theologians began to speak not of the Trinity, but of a Quaternity of God: Father, Mother, Son, and Holy Ghost.  In response, we Protestants, and yes Anglicans are included in that broad title, have shied away from Mariology, which is unfortunate because there is much we can learn from the example of Mary, especially in Luke’s Gospel where she is lifted up as the pre-eminent example of what it looks like to be a faithful follower of God.  In her conversation with the Angel Gabriel, we see Mary coming to terms with what it means to trust in God fully: a struggle that anyone who decides to follow Jesus will encounter.

The story begins in the backwater, nothing town of Nazareth in Galilee.  Mary is a young woman of maybe twelve or thirteen, betrothed to a carpenter named Joseph.  As she awaits the return of the bridegroom who will take her to his father’s house, Mary finds herself face to face with the Archangel Gabriel.  He begins with words of comfort and blessing, “Greetings favored one!  The Lord is with you.”  Mary is perplexed and she debates within herself what sort of greeting this might be.  Mary is wise beyond her years here.  Clearly she is being buttered up for something by the divine-being standing before her.  “What’s going on here?” she must wonder, “What is about to happen?”

It is in that moment that Gabriel speaks the most common words that angels speak, “Be not afraid.”  Notice that all of this has happened before Mary has committed to anything, before even Gabriel as begun to share with her the good news of God’s plan for salvation.  Mary is favored by God just where she is, just how she is.  She has been offered the grace of God, and quite frankly, she’s not sure what to do with it. Often, we aren’t either.

Our story begins in the early days of what was once a backwater, nothing town called Foley in Baldwin County, Alabama.  By 1924, the city had been incorporated for almost a decade, the railroad had been transporting crops for nearly twenty years, and the city had a school, several churches, and even its own newspaper.  Yet for a small group of Episcopalians, there was still something missing.  There was already an Episcopal congregation in Bon Secour, but getting to worship at Saint Peter’s wasn’t easy, and because the priest came to Bon Secour from Mobile by boat, which was very much weather dependent, you could never be sure if there’d actually be services when you got there.  So Mrs. Shepherd along with the Holks, Wenzels, Mannings, Heltons, and several others petitioned Bishop McDowell for a missionary priest to serve them.  God had found favor with these faithful Episcopalians long before Saint Paul’s was founded, and in response to that grace, and despite some bouncing around, meeting in the Agricultural Building at Foley High School, the Odd Fellows Hall and the Masonic Temple, they found ways to be the Church in South Alabama and on May 22nd, 1928, the cornerstone of the current chapel building was laid.

Sensing Mary’s trepidation, the Archangel Gabriel implored her to not be afraid, and then laid out before her a plan for the salvation of the world that was as amazing as it was hard to believe.  “How can this be?” was Mary’s response.

“Nothing is impossible with God.”

“How can this be?” has been a popular question in this congregation as well.  Finances have been an issue here since the very beginning.  It is only thanks to the generous donation of several lots at the corner of Pine and Orchid Streets by John Foley that Saint Paul’s was even able to consider building a place to call home, but it took raffles, the sale of homemade Easter baskets and even a quilt or two to raise enough money to actually build the church.  Even then, the building had to be built as inexpensively as possible.  The bricks, which were fired in Bon Secour, were thought to be of such poor quality that that many thought they simply would not hold up, and to keep the sewer bill paid, the Boller and Rich families sponsored card parties.  Through it all, and despite a few pretty crummy priests along the way, Saint Paul’s has faithfully lived out the Gospel call to love God and love our neighbor.  Like the Virgin Mary, there have often been doubts, but the steadfast love of God, through which nothing is impossible, has continued to sustain this Church for 90 years.

Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”  Despite her fears and doubts, Mary responded with faithfulness.  Through Mary, God’s plan for salvation came to fulfillment.  In Mary we find an example of faithfulness despite the odds and a call to follow the Lord no matter the cost.

As we look forward to the next 90 years for Saint Paul’s in Foley, my prayer is for continued faithfulness.  There is a tendency in the church to look back on our past and think longingly about how things used to be, but instead, I hope that we will remember that God is continuing to call us forward, continuing to propel us out of these walls and into the world to share the good news of Jesus Christ in word and deed.  Let us never forget the faithfulness of Mary and the faithfulness of our founding mothers and fathers who followed God’s call, took risks, tried new things, and by the grace of God were able to accomplish infinitely more than they could have ever imagined.  Let it be with us as you have promised, O Lord, and bless us with faithfulness and grace in the years to come.  Amen.

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