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Avoiding the Civil Rights Movement

When the civil rights movement blasted through St. Augustine, several black churches hosted rallies, meetings, and training for the movement; St. Cyprian's did not. Many local adults lost their jobs for participating in demonstrations; St. Cyprian's adults would not risk their good jobs. Many local teens skipped school to attend demonstrations; St. Cyprian's parents made sure their kids got on the school bus. The few members who wanted to support the movement kept it mild, such as donating money. Overall, the congregation stayed safe, and somewhat isolated.

Ironically, it was Trinity Parish, St. Cyprian's white sister church, that got caught up in the racial tensions. From its location on the square, it had a front-row seat to the nightly protest marches. The Episcopal Bishop Edward West had sent out an order to all churches in the Diocese not to exclude anyone from Episcopal services. When civil rights activists announced their intentions to attend Trinity's weekday communion service, the Vestry (church council) defied the Bishop's order. They told their Rector, Father Charles Seymour, to cancel the service. Father Seymour obeyed the bishop instead, and the Vestry asked him to leave. He refused to leave at the time, but later left for another church.

Two years later, St. Cyprian's counterpart in Fernandina also took a new direction. There, the Negro Episcopal Good Shepherd Church was about to receive diocese funding for a much-needed new building. The plan was stopped by a nationally-active black group called the Episcopal Society for Cultural and Racial Unity. They convinced the diocese not to support segregation anymore, so Fernandina's black Good Shepherd Church was merged with the nearby white St. Peter's Church.

Meanwhile, St. Cyprian's members aged gracefully while a new day dawned around them. Hardly any of their children remained at the church. Some took their college degrees to larger cities, such as Washington D.C. and L.A. Others were woo'd down the street by the more modern music at other black churches. Still others chose charismatic over liturgical services. By 1990, St. Cyprian's had lost its choir and Sunday school. As membership declined, so did its finances and the structure of the historic building.


St. Cyprian's Sanctuary

St. Cyprian's heart-pine interior restored in the 1990s

The charming little building Emma White had sponsored almost a century ago was nearly falling down on the few remaining heads in the sanctuary. Once again, it was a woman from Trinity Parish to the rescue. Long-time Trinity member Margie Rahner applied for grants and rallied support to save St. Cyprian's. Help came from the Diocese of Florida, Trinity, and the residents of Lincolnville. The building enjoyed a magnificent restoration. Once again, it is a lovely place to pass by and be inside.

A new congregation is developing in the old church. In an effort to prevail over human differences, the church celebrates diversity. They honor their African-American heritage through various activities including a monthly Jazz Vespers service. They honor the original purpose of the church by offering it as a haven to people who are uncomfortable elsewhere. The Sunday bulletin handout reads:

St. Cyprian's is an open church, an inclusive Christian community in the Episcopal tradition. We welcome everyone wherever they are on their spiritual journey. We welcome especially all who may have particular reason to think they may not be welcome because of ethnic, racial or religious background, age, sexual orientation, financial circumstance, physical appearance, physical or mental ability, past or present sins. We confess that we are not a community already perfected in love, but we want to become more fully loving and we welcome into our community all who wish to join us. We are together as children of God.

All this progressive thinking is grounded by the age-old ceremony of an Episcopal church: piano and organ, robes and processions, hymns and prayer books. Certainly, new social challenges have replaced the old racial struggles in this and every church. But for those who don't want to get caught up in the storms, St. Cyprian's offers a "very comfortable and churchly" worship experience.

Further Reading

  • St. Cyprian's Historic Episcopal Church website.
  • George R. Bentley's "African-Americans and the Episcopal Church in Florida."
  • Ryan Smith's "Carpenter Gothic: The Voices of Episcopal Churches on the St. Johns River," in El Escribano, 1995.

Last modified 11-4-08.

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