Like many things that turn out to be extraordinary, Grace Church Woodlawn started out in an ordinary way.
Woodlawn, a suburb on Birmingham’s northeast side, officially was given that name in 1870. With the coming of a street railway in 1887, the area began to grow. As the city grew, its churches grew as well. Methodists and Presbyterians already had congregations in the area. Episcopalians traveled to downtown Birmingham to worship at Church of the Advent.
In 1889, even before Woodlawn was incorporated in 1890, James A. Van Hoose, a permanent deacon, and Lysander Washington Rose, rector of St. Mary’s-on-the-Highlands, met with the Episcopalians in Woodlawn to organize a mission. They voted to call the new congregation Calvary Church.
In early 1890, Calvary bought a lot from Obadi. a ash Wood, a major land holder for whom Woodlawn w named. The site was at what would become the corner of First Avenue North and 58th Street.
The first building to house the congregation went up in 1890 or 1891. The simple frame church had a single hall with a central door. Still, written descriptions make it seem to be an expressive structure for its time.
In late 1892 or early 1893, the congregation changed its name to Grace Church. In June of 1901, the church took another big step as the members met with Bishop Robert Barnwell to “discuss plans for making the Mission a Parish and for arranging a resident Minister.” After some discussion, the church agreed to seek parish status and to call Daniel Forney Hoke as minister.
Grace Church incorporated in August 1901. Wardens and a vestry were elected in September. Grace was admitted to the diocese as a parish in 1902. and Hoke was ordained as its priest. That year’s statistics reported that the congregation had 28 families, 68 confirmed persons,
48 pupils in the Sunday School and church property valued
Hoke resigned in 1903 and, in 1904, Francis Willis Ambler came to Grace Church from the Diocese of Georgia. In the diocesan newspaper of December 1906, it was reported that Grace had been ” … greatly improved on the interior. Some new pews have been added; the chancel has been beautified and lighted by the construction of end windows; not a little of the furnishings have been varnished, and the building has been freshly papered throughout.”
The newspaper added that, “These improvements are specially worth of notice because they represent the handiwork of three lay men of the Parish -a labor of love, carried out at night, after a hard day’s work…”
In 1907, the church reported 63 male and 81 female members. The Bishop noted in his 1907 address that improvements had continued at Grace. He pointed out that the churchyard had been “enclosed, a vestibule has been added to the church, new carpeting and matting have been placed on the floor.” Soon, the parish had built a rectory a block from the church.
While Grace had a rectory, it often found itself without a rector. Ambler left in 1908. John Jabez Lanier became rector in 1910. He left a year later and the church was without a rector until Luther Williams came in 1914. He stayed until 1918.
In October 1918, a new rector came to Grace Church, and his name, Carl Henckell, would become forever linked to that of Grace. His first few months there, however, were not easy.
The war was in full force and often it was Henckell’s duty to console families who had received word of loved ones who had been killed or wounded. Henckell himself had known that sorry. His oldest son, Emile, had died at Chateau Thierry in July 1918.
Added to the difficulty of the ware was an influenza epidemic that swept through Birmingham. Still, the rector was determined that the parish would grow.
He reported to the Bishop in 1919 that Grace had 194 baptized members and 148 communicants. The total income for the parish was $1,381.47.
It was time, Henckell and the congregation decided, to think about building a newer, more impressive church building. But Henckell had a plan for the structure. The church would incur no significant debt for the new building. When there were no funds for the project, building would cease. When the congregation raised more money, work on the project would start again.
On July 24, 1924, the cornerstone of the new building was laid. Many businesses and individuals donated goods and services to the construction. One company gave a carload of cement, a contractor gave three cars of sand. An individual gave steel beams to support the bell in the tower. The bell itself was a gift from former U.S. Senator Joseph F. Johnson of St. Mary’s.
But the church didn’t spring into being overnight. In october, 1926, it was reported that the walls were up, the tower the built and a bell hung. A cross had been placed on the west end gable, but there was no roof. Finally, in February 1928, a newspaper picture shows the roof in place and windows being installed.
Over time, more memorials and gifts came in. Temple Tutwiler donated the tower door in member of his father Major E.M. Tutwiler. The altar, which originally had been at Advent, then at St. Andrew’s, was passed on to Grace. An altar cross was given in memory of Emile Henckell. Another donor, Margaret Shepherd, already had given
$1,000. She added another $500. *
Though there wasn’t a ceiling to cover the roof supports and the heating system had not been installed, Grace Church held its first service in the new building on October 9, 192 7. Rev. 0scar de Wolf Randolph of St. Mary’s preached at the first 11 a.m. service. Bishop William G. McDowell preached at that evening’s service.
Of that new building’s design, a 1991 guidebook said, “This is a deliberately Gothic design. The tower is set asymmetrically to one side and was intended to be the main entrance, probably a conscious English Gothic mannerism, since English village churches are often entered from midway in one side.
“The rusticated brownstone is random laid, deliberately irregular and small in scale except for the bold blocks framing the windows and doors.”
The new church building slowly began to attract new church members, but the growing congregation was hit hard just two years later when the Stock Market crash and Great Depression took their toll on the finances of the church. As the finances dwindled, membership declined as well.
Still, in 1931, the Bishop was on hand at Grace to pronounce a blessing at a special service to celebrate the completion of the paneling on the chancel walls.
Rev. Henckell’s health had begun to decline and, by 1933, he was clearly worse. He died on January 30, 1933. Grace lost a great advocate, the Episcopal Church lost a leader and Birmingham lost a vital citizen. In his lifetime, he not only had seen Grace through hardships to a major building project and expansion of its membership, but also had begun the mission that would become All Saints Homewood and been a founder of Holy Innocents Hospital, which became Children’s Hospital of Alabama.
In July of that year, Wayne Buchanan was installed as Grace’s new rector. On May 31, 1936, Buchanan celebrated a “reunion service of all present and former members.” That fall, Grace once again was without a rector when Buchanan resigned to become rector of the Church of the Holy Cross in Houston, Texas.
When the church’s new rector, Peter H. Dennis, came to Grace in early 1937, there were 143 baptized and 110 communicant members.
The church, which now seemed to have reached a more settled state for the first time since Henckell’s death, began making some changes. The parish sold the old rectory at 5900 First Court South and bought a new house at 216 59th Place South.
That settled state once again was disrupted when Dennis resigned on September 30, 1937. Alabama native Leon C. Palmer became Grace’s next rector in March 1938. The parish also began to grow and more improvements were made to the parish facilities.
A new pulpit was installed as a memorial to Dr. Henckell. Parishioners began to raise money for a new organ, which finally was installed in 1942. That also was the year that Palmer died at the age of 58 and the church again was seeking someone to fill the pulpit.
Joseph Burton was assigned to minister to both the Grace and Good Shepherd congregations. After his official call in March 1942, Burton moved into the Grace rectory.
Despite the fact that World War II was taking away many of the parish’s young men, Burton set about to encourage better attendance at church and Sunday School.
Burton revived the Young People’s Service League and began an evening unit of the Women’s Auxiliary.
An Altar Guild was organized in November 1942. The members set up a flower chart and started a Sunday bulletin, which they financed. They sold church calendars, solicited donations and held a bazaar and tea to finance their purchases of candles, communion bread and wine and altar linens and hangings.
Because Burton began having heart problems in 1947, he resigned in 1948. On March 16, 1948, the vestry voted to call a new rector, Joseph P. Hollifield, who officially took the post on May 1.
During his first year at Grace, Hollifield and the vestry began planning improvements in the church building and expansion of the parish facilities. One of the biggest changes made in the physical plant was the “turning” of the church in March 1950. The window on the west end of the building was replaced with a new main entrance on First Avenue. Steps and double doors were added in a project designed by architect William Shaw, a member of Grace’s vestry.
The doors were painted red in a revival of the English tradition that red church doors represented a “place of refuge and sanctuary.”
The church also needed to improve and expand its education and meeting facilities. At that time, all of those functions took place in the church or the old frame church behind it. These changes would come about in a most unexpected manner.
In April, Hollifield, who had three sons, announced that he was marrying a widow with two sons and that they would be building their own home. Since the rectory no longer would be needed, the church voted to sell it.
That sale provided the money for the church to buy a house and lot adjoining the church on First Avenue in August 1951. The house would provide the needed space for Sunday School classes and a nursery.
In 1952 Grace marked 50 years of being a parish. The big celebration took place in May, beginning on Wednesday, May 21, at a banquet held in the Education Building of the Woodlawn Methodist Church. On the
following day, the Feast of the Ascension, Holy Communion was celebrated at 7:30 and 10 a.m., with Evensong at 7:30 p.m. On Friday, there was Communion at 7:30 a.m. and at 11 a.m. Requiem Eucharist for the departed members of the parish was held. On Sunday, May 25, the 11 a.m. was a sung Eucharist. An illustrated booklet with a brief history of the parish, lists of rectors and memorials and a program of the events was published as a permanent record.
The 1952 celebration booklet included a drawing of a proposed stained glass window for the east end of the chancel to replace the original yellow glass.
During 1952, four rooms were added to the Sunday School building to accommodate the growing number of pupils.
In May 1954 the new stained glass window was installed and dedicated. Made by the Franz Mayer Studio of Munich, the window’s cost of $2,505 was raised as a memorial to earlier members and friends of the parish. The central light depicts Christ the King, that on the left the Blessed Virgin Mary, that on the right St. John the Evangelist.
To further beautify the church, a carved walnut font cover was presented in 1954 by the parents of Billy Lowe, a corporal in the Marines killed in Korea in 1950.
By the time these improvements were in place, however, the building needed new heating and cooling systems and the two frame buildings needed work as well.
Shaw drew up plans to replace the frame buildings with a parish hall and education building connecting to an addition at the east end of the church. The hall would be built first. The second phase would be the addition to the church replacing the old frame church. The third phase would connect these two new structures with a new Christian education building set at the back of the property. All these buildings were to be faced with stone to match the church. A new stonefaced vestibule, or narthex, for the church would be built on First Avenue.
By 1955 the parish’s space needs were serious indeed. The loan made by the bishop in 1952 to help pay for the new classrooms was paid off in May. In June Grace asked for permission to borrow money to buy the property next to the education building on First Avenue. The diocese agreed and provided a loan of $1,500. This was paid off the following April with Bishop Carpenter contributing the final $100.
Ground was broken for the new parish hall on May 1959, and the cornerstone was put in place on August 16. Inside the cornerstone were placed a cross, a list of all members living and dead and a history of the parish.
Changes had been made to the plans and the building now was to be constructed in brick.
A new stained glass window on the south wall closest to the tower entrance was installed and blessed in September 1959. It was given in memory of Raymond Lewis Norman, who had died in 1958, and his son Joseph Marion Norman, who died earlier in 1959. The window represents the Virgin Mary and Saints Matthais, Joseph, and Mark the Evangelist.
Change in the church’s appearance soon was accompanied by changes in its spiritual leadership. Hollifield resigned as rector in May 1960. James Keith Marshall Lee served as Grace’s priest until he retired in 1961. That summer the Rev. John Townshend Harrison was called to be Grace’s rector.
Grace Church entered a new realm in 1962 when it was recommended to the vestry that Grace establish a kindergarten and day school. The vestry accepted the suggestion with the aim tos tart with a kindergarten and first grade in the fall of 1962 and add a grade each year at least through the eighth grade. The kindergarten was opened, but few children were enrolled. In May 1963, when the teacher announced she was leaving, there were only three pupils. The vestry agreed that unless there were more children by the end of the week, the school would close, thus ending Grace’s venture into weekday education.
The parish celebrated the seventy-fifth anniversary of its organization as a mission in 1964. Interestingly, the church was consecrated by the Bishop in May of that year. Why this wasn’t done earlier is a mystery.
Also in 1964, a new processional cross and torches were given and dedicated as memorials. A new organ was dedicated that year with a concert by Ernest M. Buchi, a local organist whose wife was a member of Grace.
Just as they had done when Grace was building its new church, the Grace Women of the Church began a new fundraising effort for the building fund in 1965. They held a three-day rummage sale in September and, instead of closing up at the end of the original sale, the ladies decided to keep on selling every Saturday. Another big sale was held in May 1966. It raised $1,800 for the fund to build the education building, which was to be named for Carl Henckell.
New pews were bought for the church in 1966. Late that year, property next to the new parish hall on First Avenue became available. The vestry voted to purchase the house and lot in April 1967.
Harrison resigned as rector in 1967 and a search committee consisting of the Senior Warden and two other vestry members was appointed in May. Charles H. Murphy, Jr., a musician and nightclub entertainer before he was ordained as a priest, was called to be the rector at
Grace on May 22, 1967.
With Murphy’s arrival, the church began to plan its education building in earnest. The fund raising campaign began in 1971, but it faltered and the money came in slowly.
In July 1972, Murphy announced that he was leaving Grace Church. Though the diocese had a new bishop, Furman Stough, and new procedures for choosing a new priest, Grace’s vestry pushed ahead and on December 3, 1972, Charles Edward South became the church’s new rector.
Even though fundraising had been slow, the new education building finally was completed in the summer of 1974. The new building had a large nursery and toddler room, which for a time was rented out to a United Fund-supported day care service.
South became ill in 1975 and in early 1976, he announced that William Joseph Marvin would serve Grace as an assistant priest. On April 1, South left Grace and the vestry began a new search for a rector.
In January 1977, Birmingham native Charles kettler Horn became rector at Grace.
Under Horn’s leadership, Grace began to become involved in the neighborhood life of Woodlawn, a tradition that has continued.
In 1982, a United Thank offering grant made possible the complete renovation of the Stubbs House. It was hoped the shelter would open in the early spring of 1983. It finally welcomed its first residents in June. In its first seven months the facility served 42 families. The Interfaith Hospitality House, now separately incorporated, has provided a place to live and training for families unable to afford housing. It has remained fully occupied as it is the only facility of this kind in the Birmingham area. In 2002, it announced plans to buy a property in Woodlawn and erect a new structure.
A soup kitchen opened at Grace in January 1982, serving two days a week. In April, they added a third day and in May, began five day a week lunches. By the end of the year 12,289 meals had been served.
In 1983 the Community Kitchens of Birmingham incorporated. For a time, it operated kitchens at Trinity Church Bessemer and Christ Church Fairfield as well as at St. Andrew’s and Grace.
The soup kitchen, Interfaith Hospitality House, and involvement in neighborhood and city groups seeking to serve the needs of others brough Grace designation as a Jubilee Center by the diocese and the national church in 1985. It was one of 64 parishes in the country recognized as “a congregation engaged in mission and ministry among and with the poor and oppressed whose experiences can be studied and used by other congregations.”
In 1987, parish life was disrupted when Horn asked for a sabbatical for September through December for personal reasons.
On September 13, Horn resigned and the Senior Warden “presented the resume and fact sheet on the Rev. Maurice Branscomb,” who would meet with the vestry on September 23.
Branscomb became rector at Grace on January 1, 1988. The new rector was not a stranger to members of the church. In the past, he had led the congregation at St. Andrew’s.
A new project, a store selling donated second hand items and sponsored by several churches, had been first suggested in late 1987. By early 1988, this idea had become more clearly defined and in the fall, Branscomb took up the project.
Two rooms in Henckell Hall were opened in January 1989. After acquiring two store fronts on Fifty-fifth Place in downtown Woodlawn, the store moved there for its main operations. The store was named 55th Place.
Branscomb was active in the founding of the Woodlawn Christian Center in 1991. This venture, supported originally by Grace, Crestway Baptist Church, Crestway Christian Church, Woodlawn Baptist and Methodist Churches and Open Door Outreach, was organized to help poor people in the Woodlawn area secure emergency food supplies and also to help them identify and contact aid agencies.
In 1994, members of Grace began an interdenominational ministry called Grace By Day, which welcomes clients to the parish hall an hour or two before lunch is served. Volunteers talk to patrons and help as
much as they can.
The parish celebrated the hundredth anniversary of its founding throughout 1989. They began with cleaning and rearranging the education building. The formal revival of the name Henckell Hall for this structure was celebrated at Easter. A Homecoming Dinner was held in October.
A “new” used organ, acquired through the gifts of parishioners, exchange of old organ parts and some money, was installed in 1995. A dedicatory recital was played in April 1996 by Quentin Lane, the diocesan music consultant.
Father Branscomb continued to acquire new liturgical vestments for the parish and to suggest moving various pieces of ecclesiastical furniture. Moving the font from the front of the nave to just inside the First Avenue doors was among the most significant changes.
Branscomb reached the mandatory retirement age of 72 in September 1997. That same year, Timothy Scott• Holder was elected rector. He was installed in May 1998.
His program at Grace was true to his slogan, “Street and Altar.” Inspired by the already extensive outreach program at Grace, he tried to draw the parish and the neighborhood closer together. Morning Prayer began to be read every weekday morning. The parish hall was used for evening and occasional weekend functions while the soup kitchen continued to serve lunch seven days a week.
A significant area of outreach began when a Latino couple asked Holder to baptize their child. Like other parts of the country in the nineties, Alabama began to attract large numbers of Latino immigrants. A number of those who came to Birmingham began to attend Grace. In r998 a Spanish-speaking congregation, Iglesia Episcopal de la Gracia, was formed, sharing Grace’s space and rector.
Since buying the Stubbs property, Grace had often considered acquiring more land. The corner lot at First Avenue and Fifty-seventh Street was offered from time to time, but the price always was too much for the parish’s resources.
There had been talk in earlier years of acquiring the house and lot directly behind Henckell Hall, but that never happened. In 1998 that house, then vacant, caught fire. The house was badly damaged and some windows in Henckell Hall were damaged. A member of Grace bought the property for back taxes and gave it to the parish.
The first idea was to tear down the house, but another parishioner, a contractor and real estate dealer, said he could rehabilitate it. Holder was enthusiastic at the prospect of living in Woodlawn. The church was able to secure a loan for fixing up the house as the rectory. Holder moved there in 1999.
The parish also acquired the corner lot across Fifty-Eighth Street from the church. A decaying corner building was torn down and the lot paved to provide much needed parking for the parishioners and those doing business with the church. The lot beyond the rectory became its side yard.
In 2002, Dr. James Lasker, a member of St. Luke’s Mountain Brook, through the Lasker Foundation, gave the funds to completely redo the Grace kitchen and restrooms. Holder remained rector of Grace until September In 2000, Ruth Bradbury LaMonte, a retired faculty member in the UAB School of Education, was ordained a Title IX priest for Grace. In October 2002 she became the parish’s interim priest until Holder’s successor took office.
In December 2004, Rev.James W. Williams became rector at Grace.
Today’s mission at Grace is stated clearly.
“The mission of Grace Episcopal Church, Woodlawn, a diverse inclusive, and welcoming parish, is to attend to the spiritual needs of our parishioners and to minister to the multitude of persons in need around us through outreach ministries.
Grace parishioners indeed are committed to inclusiveness. It is a diverse parish with members from throughout metropolitan Birmingham. The parish family consists of traditional families, same-gender couples, as well as many unmarried, divorced and windowed single members. A small number of active members are of African-American and Hispanic/Latino heritage.
The diversity continues in personal ministries and how members express their love for Christ in the community and beyond. There are members who are active in political issues. Others work for social justice organizations.
“The desire to know and welcome our neighbors and respond to their needs is strong. The words printed each Sunday in our service leaflet, ‘a table where all people of God are welcome and all guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ,’ reflect our understanding of God’s call to us as people of Grace Episcopal Church, Woodlawn.”
*Mrs. Shepherd is memorialized in one of the church’s
windows. Other windows were dedicated in memory of Robert Jemison, Daniel Forney Hoke, Mary Snow Ormond, Walter W. Knight, Percy D. Knight, Annie Eliza Lloyd, Joseph Brower, Isabella Mann Henley, Edith Cavell, Jane Rachel Mann and Mr. and Mrs. Alexander J. Denny.
Some material for the “History of Grace Church” was taken from Grace to Worship…Grace to Serve…Grace to Grow by Barbara Brandon Schnorrenberg. Many thanks to Mrs. Schnorrenberg for her generosity in allowing us to use her work.