On Sept. 10, All Saints’ Episcopal Church on Front Street in Warrenton held a ceremony commemorating the laying of the Thomas Cain Cornerstone on Sept. 14, 1914. Attended by nearly 50 people, the moving and meaningful ceremony was a welcome one in Warrenton.
Church leaders Diane Fitz, Portia Hawes, Wilhelmina Ratliff and Robin Williams spoke of the people and memories that made the church, built by Bishop Henry Beard Delany in 1918, what it means to them.
This was the first gathering held at the church since the Dec. 12, 2018 service, which marked the formal closing of the congregation as a mission of the Diocese. Bishop Sam Rodman, who led last week’s service, was the celebrant of the 2018 service.
While worship services were held regularly over the years, the small membership at All Saints’ did all they could to keep the congregation going. It housed a child development center from 1976-89, and another daycare center called New Beginnings from 1998-2006, using the rectory as well as the basement. The last religious service was held at All Saints’ in 2015.
In 2017, a monumental effort known as the All Saints’ Project began working for what became 18 months on a comprehensive plan to transform the church into a cultural arts center. The sanctuary space would host concerts, plays, arts shows and lectures. But despite diverse and intergenerational support, issues arose and the efforts to create the cultural communal space ceased.
As Bishop Rodman said in his remarks on Sept. 10, “It should be noted that the All Saints’ Project began this work at a time when the church, and I as Bishop, did not fully recognize or appreciate the importance of this building and its place in our own history. We are grateful to all who participated in that effort and look forward to the opportunity to work together as we move forward with the town and the county to preserve, celebrate and reanimate the life and purpose of this place.”
What that purpose will be remains unclear.
Along with his wife, Beth, Mark Wethington, a pastor who moved to Warrenton last year, has gotten involved with the church. He said that he’d walked past it a number of times and wondered what was happening with the historic building. He got in touch with The Rev. Dr. Brooks Graebner, a friend and classmate of his from graduate school at Duke. Graebner serves as the historiographer for the Episcopal Diocese, which made him a good person with whom to connect about the question of what to do with this 100-year-old spiritual space.
Wethington said the dream for All Saints’ was that it might become a place of reconciliation, for programs, plays, concerts, community gatherings and special services. The pastor said the church is part of the African American heritage of the community and needs to be preserved.
“There’s good signs in the community that people want to work together with the Diocese to ensure the building and that heritage is preserved and made into something new to serve the community,” he said. Wethington went on to say that the Sept. 10 commemorative service is a sign to the community that the church is coming back.
While the work needed to make the church usable would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, a small step will soon be taken to repair some of the stained glass windows at a cost of $13,000. Bishop Rodman submitted a letter asking the Town of Warrenton to contribute $3,000 during its Sept. 14 board of commissioners meeting. While Preservation Warrenton contributed $3,000, the town voted unanimously not to do so despite assurances from Wethington that the Diocese was committed to investing a considerable sum to make significant repairs to the church, including the basement, roof, and interior walls.
As Bishop Rodman said in Warrenton on Sept. 10:
“Becoming Beloved Community is the language we now use to describe the vision of Thomas Cain and Bishop Delaney. Beloved Community is the stone — chosen and precious — and it is the legacy of All Saints’ Church. And it’s embodied in the stories that Portia and Wilhelmina and Robin shared of the people of this church, the Saints of All Saints’.”
He went on to say that this is not just a story of the past.
“It is the story of a dream that God has for all of us. It is a dream of our community today. What we could and should be together. It is multi-racial, it is non-partisan, it is rooted in the common good. It makes a place for those who have been sidelined and whose voices have not been heard or valued. It brings together town and church, secular and sacred, people of different and diverse backgrounds and history who share a common hope and purpose.”
The Diocese recognized Town Administrator Robert Davie for his assistance with the arrangements for the ceremony, along with members of the local steering committee who have been meeting monthly since January. This group includes Davie, the Wethingtons, Hawes, Ratliff, Williams, Graebner, Cheryl Coffman, Brandi Delany, Charles Farrar and Virginia Broach.
Robin Williams said she found the service very hopeful and inspiring. “There are so many possibilities,” she said referring to the future uses for the church. “I hope it will serve as a unifying force for the town and the county.”