Natives of LaGrange — and some new comers — know St. Mark’s Episcopal Church on North Greenwood Street as the church “with the big cross in front of it.” It’s true, that cross is big. The 14-foot, seven-ton monument has cast its shadow on church goers since its dedication in 1963.
But the history of St. Mark’s dates back much further, to a time when the parish was founded in 1864, in what was still the Confederate States of America during the war between the states. To commemorate the church’s past, present and future, the congregation is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year.
“For me, it’s an exciting opportunity for the whole church to look back at its past, but also to the future,” said the Rev. Allen Pruitt, the priest at St. Mark’s. “When the church was founded in 1864, the Civil War was raging all around it, and LaGrange wasn’t exactly a prosperous place — but the founders dared to start something new, and I find that very inspiring.”
The celebration kicked off last Saturday at the church with a community event that included games, a pie-baking contest and family-fun activities.
St. Mark’s was formally organized on March 28, 1864, with just 31 members. At the time, the parish had no worship space and met periodically at Presbyterian, Baptist and Methodist churches, as well as Masonic lodges and schools. It wasn’t until 1892 that the congregation would finally have a home. That home was on the corner of Church and Battle streets, and is still there today. Now, that building is used by the Jewish congregation Beth-El.
The Episcopalians occupied that space until 1945, when it was sold to the Beth-El congregants. St. Mark’s was again homeless until Christmas Eve, 1949, when the congregation held their first service in the parish’s present location on N. Greenwood Street. An estimate 230 people attended that service, with “pews filled, standing in the back and many who left because of the crowd,” church records noted.
Not much of the church’s structure changed until 1962, with the addition of a parish hall, classrooms and other amenities, bring it to its present look. Perhaps the church’s most notable feature, the massive Celtic cross in front, was dedicated in April of 1963.
The cross was designed by Atlanta architect Preston McIntosh, who referred to it as the “exclamation point” of the building’s architecture. Its installation garnered national attention, and a reporter and photographer from Time magazine came to see it. The story never made it into Time, though, because Pope John XXIII that week delivered his famous “Peace on Earth” proclamation in the wake of the Cuban Missile Crisis. The pope’s remarks trumped the cross’s installation, and the article was bumped.
Hazel Glover, a native LaGranger who grew up in St. Mark’s, was there the day the cross was placed.
“It was very exciting,” Glover said. “I remember they brought it in on flatbed trucks and they had to use a crane to put it in place. It was a really big deal.”
Although Glover remembers the placement of the limestone cross, what she remembers most about growing up in the church was how she was treated.
“The church always treated me as a person, even though I was just a kid,” she said. “The most important thing was that they treated everyone with dignity, no matter who they were.”
That respect for human dignity was exemplified in the early 1950s, when St. Mark’s Kindergarten was established. At the time, it was the only racially integrated kindergarten in LaGrange.
“It’s always been a progressive church,” said Glover, who is now an Episcopal priest at a church in Carrollton, Georgia. “We didn’t preach a lot of hell fire and damnation, we focused on all things bright and beautiful in God’s creation.”
That progressive spirit is literally etched into the church itself. The “exclamation point” cross out front is adorned with symbols of the church and the surrounding world. Up close, the street-facing side of the cross displays the symbols of the twelve apostles with a grape vine that intertwines them all. The vine represents Jesus’ words in John chapter 15, verse 5: “I am the vine, and you are the branches.”
On the opposite side of the cross, facing the church building, secular symbols of society challenge viewers to reflect on their faith in the modern world. Mickey Mouse, John Glenn’s space capsule, a hydrogen bomb’s mushroom cloud and even a jumbo jet all ornament the Indiana limestone. At the bottom, the haunting questions, “Who are you? Where are you going? Why?” ask the most fundamental questions of humanity.
Inside the sanctuary of the church, stained glass windows depict the life and ministry of Jesus. One particular window, paid for with funds from Glover’s family, shows the temptation of Christ, complete with a reddish-pink Satan offering Jesus a golden crown.
“When we donate that money, all the other windows had been dedicated already. Nobody wanted the devil window,” laughed Glover. “So we decided to dedicate it.” A marker in honor of Glover’s family still stands today below that window.
Although the physical building’s, stained glass and grounds are beautiful reminders of the church’s past, the true St. Mark’s Church is not a building; it is a congregation of people.
“It’s a great blessing to see so much history at St. Mark’s,” Pruitt, the priest, said. “We have an opportunity here, as a congregation, to push that history forward and carry on. Our real opportunity lies in our ability to articulate our faith — a faith that God will be with us here.”
The celebration will culminate on Sunday, Oct. 19 of this year when The Rt. Rev. Robert Wright, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta, will visit the parish and preside over the service.
Learn more about St. Mark’s Episcopal Church by visiting them online at www.stmarkslg.org or by calling them at (706) 884 8911. Sunday services are held at the church at 8 a.m. and 10:30 a.m. A Celtic eucharist is held Wednesday at 5:30 p.m.