History of St. Monica’s Episcopal Church
At the dawn of the twentieth century, Blacks in Hartford, Connecticut were treated no differently than Blacks in other places throughout this country. A deeply ingrained racism permeated all facets of the American social structure. The vestiges of slavery in conjunction with the oppressiveness of Jim Crows were still very much a part of the ethos of our nation. Consequently, Blacks in America were viewed, by their White countrymen, as subordinate and less than they. During this period, Blacks within America were denigrated, belittled, misused, mistreated; ultimately, they were relegated to a position of second-class citizenry. Unfortunately, American Christianity was not exempt in this desire to relegate Blacks to a position of inferiority. As a consequence of this worldview, Black Episcopalians were unwelcome and unwanted within the Episcopal churches populated/attended by their White Christian brothers and sisters. It was within this context and milieu that the seeds of St. Monica’s Episcopal Church were planted and nurtured. It was within this hotbed of racism and discrimination that God guided our founders in creating an oasis of love, which we have come to know as St. Monica’s.
In the early twentieth century, Blacks were members of the majority of churches in the Hartford area. The parishioners of this congregation met them with varying degrees of acceptance and disdain; thus, these pioneers maintained precarious relationships within their churches. The Black Episcopalians realized that despite their kinship as brothers and sisters in Christ, the members of these White congregations did not view Black Christians as equals in Christ. Their conceptual relationship in Christ was neither accepted nor condoned. Unwilling to tolerate or accept such discriminatory practices, these early Black Episcopalians yearned to found a congregation of their own within their own church. The initial meeting to discuss the organization and establishment of a separate church was held on June 27, 1904. The first service in celebration of the permanent organization of a separate church was held on Saturday, July 17, 1904. All of the incubatory activities were held at St. John’s Church in downtown Hartford; Rev. James Braden, rector of St. John’s assisted with these deliberations and conducted the service. The quest to form their own church was finalized on July 31, 1904. In an act of asserting and demanding their God-ordained rights of personhood, a petition signed by thirty-two (32) proud, and determined God-inspired persons was sent to Bishop Brewster requesting acceptance in the Diocese of Connecticut as a mission church. Unfortunately the names of these persons have been lost, but their spirit of commitment to the church remains with us today. The petition was accepted and the mission church, named in honor of the Black saint and mother of St. Augustine came into existence. Most of the churches in the area rejoiced at the birth of this new church, for varying reasons, but the rector of Trinity Church responded with the spirit of true Christian belief and practice. He adamantly opposed the birth of this church in response to his Christian belief that this was a form of unchristian segregation! Despite popular opinion, this priest spoke out against that which he felt to be wrong. In contrast the founding members of the congregation saw this as a means of gaining and maintaining an equitable status within the diocese. Inspired by a God who demanded equity, the congregation continued to conduct services at St. John’s Church under the direction of Rev. James Braden. In 1906, St. John’s moved to West Hartford, and services were transferred to the choir loft of Christ Church Cathedral, which was also located in downtown Hartford. Rev. E.L. Henderson, vicar of St. Luke’s New Haven, assumed leadership of the congregation until a vicar was appointed. In 1907, The Right Reverend Brewster appointed Rev. Alonzo Johnson as the first vicar of St. Monica’s. As the first vicar, he was responsible for guiding the initial growth and development of the congregation. During this period, the church moved to its first permanent facility. The building, formerly owned by Shiloh Baptist Church, was located at 127 Mather Street. This was the site of our congregation’s first permanent home and facility. Rev. Johnson faithfully served the congregation until his death in 1914.
The Rev. William B. Southern was appointed the second vicar of St. Monica’s when he was appointed in 1914. He continued the work begun by Rev. Johnson and worked to bring a sense of stability to the congregation. He sought to establish a sense of family within the small, yet growing, close knit community, and to lead them in assuming greater responsibility for their circumstances. Rev. Southern served the congregation with dedication for three years.
Rev. Osmond Brown became the third vicar, when the bishop appointed him in 1917. It was he who served as the congregation’s spiritual leader during the traumatic years of World War I. He sought to bring a sense of peace to the congregation as they dealt with these turbulent times, and to reestablish a sense of normalcy as the war came to a close. He worked to strengthen the bonds of this community of faith. Rev. Brown served the congregation faithfully, for six years. After leaving St. Monica’s, Rev. Brown was to become one of the first Black canons in the country.
The bishop appointed our fourth vicar Rev. John Freeman, a former army chaplain, in 1923. He led the congregation during a historic period in this country, which saw the rise of Black consciousness and a renewed desire for Black self-determination. It was also a period of growth for Black congregations, and St. Monica’s saw an increase in membership during this period. During Rev. Freeman’s tenure, the congregation moved from 127 Mather St. to St. Thomas’s Church on Main St. Due to a dwindling membership, St. Thomas’s congregation had recently merged with Christ Church Cathedral. This facility was relatively large, and was viewed as too big for this growing congregation. Others did not deem it acceptable for a Black Episcopal congregation to move into this facility. In 1926, we moved to our current site, when Bishop Acheson exchanged the Main Street facility with that of Union Baptist Church. The diocese retained ownership of the rectory and it was given to St. Monica’s to serve as the rectory for tier vicars. After renovations were completed on the church, at 31 Mather St., Bishop Acheson consecrated St. Monica’s Episcopal Church. On October 3, 1926 Rev. Freeman faithfully served the congregation for four years, leaving in 1927.
Rev. Alfred Lambert was appointed the fifth vicar of St. Monica’s in 1928. He faithfully served the congregation for thirty-five years. His was a long and vibrant ministry, which saw a continual and consistent increase in membership. During his years of service a wide range of societal changes took place. His tenure encompassed the Great Depression era, to the World War II period, to the beginnings of the modern day Civil Rights Movement. Each of these advances directly impacted the lives of the congregation, and Rev. Lambert shepherded his congregation and provided them with the spiritual sustenance to deal with a rapidly changing society. It was during his tenure, as vicar, that the demography of the congregation began to undergo significant changes, and it was at this time that we saw the beginnings of the ethnically rich multicultural congregation that has become the present-day St. Monica’s. In addition to the indigenous Black families, that had hither too composed the membership was enlarged through the addition of an influx of migrants from the South and immigrants from the Caribbean. These newcomers to both the area and the church had come in search of better lives and opportunities for themselves and their children. They had come in hopes of making real the “American Dream”. Their incorporation into the congregation created a revolutionary change in the outlook, perceptions and desires of the membership. It was during this period that the seeds of economic, physical and spiritual independence were first planted and the desire to become a self-sufficient church was nurtured. The congregation grew significantly and the community of faith grew stronger. Rev. Lambert served with dedication and commitment until his retirement in 1963. Currently Rev. Lambert’s children, grandchildren and other relatives remain actively involved in the life of St. Monica’s.
Rev. Charles Poindexter was appointed the sixth vicar in October 1963. At the start of his sojourn at St. Monica’s the rectory on Main St. was sold to Union Baptist and a new rectory on Palm Street was purchased. His tenure at the church was fairly brief, and served as a transitional period between Rev. Lambert’s many years of service and the start of the next phase of the church’s ministries. He served faithfully until December 1964.
On first of January 1966, Bishop Walter Gray appointed Rev. Cyril C. Burke as the seventh vicar of St. Monica’s Episcopal Church. His was a dynamic and focused ministry, which sought to bring the church to the next level both as a congregation and within the diocese. During his tenure efforts were concentrated towards the meshing of the myriad cultural and ethnic groups into a united body of Christ. The church continued to grow in both size and diversity and began to forge positive relationships with other churches, both Episcopal and other denominations, throughout the state. As a product of an existing venture in mission a parish house was erected; this was a result of the combined fund raising efforts of the membership of St. Monica’s, the Diocese of Connecticut and the member churches of the Episcopal Metropolitan Mission. Bishop Hutchens dedicated the Parish Center on January 2, 1972. This was the era of the Black Power Movement and of Black pride and these societal forces directly impacted the church as a whole as well as its individual members. Impelled and nurtured by these societal forces and the idealism of these life-altering movements, the dream to assume self-sufficiency and independence neither abated nor perished. It was during Rev. Burke’s tenure that the dream of achieving self-sufficiency and of leaving our status of dependency came to fruition. The dreams of those who had paved the way became a reality when the congregation was able to assume financial responsibility for its support. Upon reaching this joyous point the congregation made its formal application to Bishop Hutchens to become a parish. At the Diocesan Convention held in Bridgeport, in May, 1973 we were accepted as full and equal parish in the Diocese of Connecticut. We had finally acquired a position of parity within the Anglican Communion. Rev. Cyril C. Burke was called as the first rector and instituted as the first rector on November 25, 1973. Rev. Burke led the church in ventures, which sought to strengthen our ties to the larger community and which sought to be of service to those less fortunate than us. He faithfully served the congregation for eighteen years, leaving in 1984 to assume the chaplaincy at his alma mater St. Augustine’s College, Raleigh, North Carolina. He later became a canon of the Cathedral and was elected rector emeritus, of this parish, in April 1993. Rev. Burke and his family currently remain members of the parish.
Rev. Jesse F. Anderson was called as the second rector in 1986. During his tenure the physical and spiritual growth of the congregation continued. It was during this time that the Palm Street rectory was sold. As a consequence of the search process a plan, which identified and outlined the church’s changing role, as it neared the close of its first century was developed. In assuming the position of rector, Rev. Anderson also assumed leadership of our dynamic mission of faith, which had come to be known as the Second Century Project. This document identified our ministries to the larger community, and our goal of building a new church. This pan provided housing for the elderly and affordable homes for those of moderate income. It sought to provide a center for use by the larger community and to build a new church. The foundation for this project was laid during Rev. Anderson’s tenure. It was a period of much planning as we prayerfully focused our energies and efforts on making this dream for the second century a reality. This was a period during which we strived to develop means to become evangelists within our community and to create means of making our worship services and style more appealing to those from differing religious roots. Rev. Anderson served the congregation faithfully until 1990. Upon leaving St. Monica’s he became the rector of the nation’s oldest Black Episcopal Church, St. Thomas’s in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
On January 1, 1994, the Rev. Fr. Himie-Budu Shannon accepted the call to become the third rector of St. Monica’s Episcopal Church. He faithfully served the parish continuing the work of his predecessors as he lead the congregation in discerning and fulfilling their changing ministry as we entered a new millennia and our second century as a congregation. Fr. Shannon oversaw the building of affordable homes and the increase of programs which seek to minister to the needs of others. Rev. Shannon has sought to capitalize on and enrich our diversity as a congregation and to forge stronger ties with the surrounding community. He has assumed a central role in the drive to build a new church and hoped to oversee the construction of a new facility which will serve as the spiritual and physical home of St. Monica’s. Fr. Shannon served faithfully until 2005 before becoming rector of an Episcopal Parish in Charlotte, North Carolina.
*On December 30, 2007, the Rev. Charles A. Davidson accepted the call to become the fourth rector of St. Monica’s Episcopal Church. He is committed to supporting the congregation in achieving their goals of becoming a United Body in Christ; advancing Christian Education and youth programs; improving stewardship and building a new Church home. Under this mantle Fr. Davidson shepherded the congregation through the sale of the property at 31-41 Mather St. and its temporary home during seven months at St. James Episcopal Church, Hartford. He guided the congregation though the construction of the new Parish Hall at 3575 Main St., Hartford and presided over the first service held on February 22, 2009. The Rt. Rev. Andrew Smith, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Connecticut dedicated the Parish Hall on May 2, 2009.
Ours has not been an easy task but through and with God it has been accomplished. Commitment to God, our fellow men and our church have always been earmarks of this congregation, and they will continue to be. We give thanks for the many joys, sorrows, struggles, and tribulations, which have brought us thus far in and through faith. Indeed, we have come this far through faith, and we shall continue to lean on the Lord for strength and direction as we continue to evolve as a church. Those whose struggles and hard work have made this reality, though not necessarily known by name, will always be remembered for that which they have accomplished. This marks the end of our first century and the start of our second century as a congregation, and we rejoice in reaching this milestone. We pray that God will continue to lead and inspire us as we continue in our journey in His faith, and fulfilling His will.
Compiled by Darryl C. Burke, Church Historian; *Historical update by Walter Benjamin
Vicars since becoming a Mission in 1904
1907-1914 Rev. Alonzo Johnson
1914-1917 Rev. William B. Southern
1917-1923 Rev. Osmond Brown
1923-1928 Rev. John Freeman
1928-1963 Rev. Alfred M. Lambert
1963-1964 Rev. Charles Poindexter
1966-1973 Rev. Cyril C. Burke
Rectors since becoming a Parish in 1973
1973-1984 Rev. Dr. Cyril C. Burke
1984-1985 Rev. Mark Henderson (Interim)
1985-1991 Rev. Jesse F. Anderson, Jr.
1991-1993 Rev. Annika Warren (Interim)
1993-1994 Rev. Willbourne Austin (Interim)
1994-2005 Rev. HImie Budu Shannon
2006-2007 Rev. Dr. Michael J.R. Tessman (Interim)
2007-2014 Rev. Charles A. Davidson
2014-Present Rev. Tracy Johnson Russell (Priest-in-Charge)