Monday, February 25, 2013

Celebrating 25 Years of Integration

Great story from Channel 8! Thanks to those who were interviewed. Click here for the source page and video

By: Caroline Tucker

Rochester's oldest church still operating is looking forward...and is celebrating a major milestone. 25 years ago the church of St. Luke and St. Simon of Cyrene merged and integrated its congregation. It was a move that challenged perceptions and crossed barriers.

The church of St. Luke and St. Simon Cyrene is known as "Two Saints" in downtown Rochester. For the last month, the church has celebrated its history of integration that continues to break the divide.

The doors are always open at "Two Saints."

"I walked in and it was a complete reminder of the parish I grew up in, in terms of the diversity, in terms of style of music," said Merle Welsh.

Race does not divide here.

"It's a stronger congregation," says Francine Conwell. "It's a place where people are feeling comfortable.  We are feeling welcoming."

The experiment started 25 years ago. Attendance was falling at the historically white St. Luke's Episcopal Church and at St. Simon of Cyrene - the city's African American Episcopal Church. So they merged.

"When the merger was going to take place I was very much opposed to it because we were the only African American Episcopalian Church in the city," said Conwell.

Change was not easy on either side.

"I think it was more prejudice than anything else," said Adrienne Simpkins.

It was in January of 1988 when the two churches combined for their first service, the St. Simon of Cyrene Congregation left this building at that point.

Some left....but 60 percent of the current congregation joined after the merger.

"I hope this can be a place where reconciliation can happen, where truth can be told beyond the lines that divide us"

"Two Saints" is now model in Rochester.

"The way we have grown together is really something to see and something to admire," said Jean Kenney.

A celebration of bridging barriers then and now.

"This is that heavenly vision, this is to use the language of Martin Luther King, that beloved community... where all people have a seat at what my ancestors used to call the welcome table."

The congregation at Two Saints hopes that over the next 25 years - it can be part of the solution to some of the city's social problems - like poverty and education. Reverend Michael Hopkins says many issues stem from races and cultures not being able to talk to one another.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Historic Rochester Church Celebrates Its Integration

Reported by: Alexis Arnold
13 WHAM News

Rochester, N.Y. -  St. Luke and St. Simon Cyrene, also known as “Two Saints” in downtown Rochester, is considered to be the most diverse Episcopal church in the city.

It wasn't always that way.

St. Luke's was founded in 1817, by Colonel Nathaniel Rochester and Major William Fitzhugh. It was the first Episcopal church in Rochester. The congregation was all white.

St. Simon Cyrene was founded in 1912. It was the home for the city's black Episcopalians.

But that changed in the 1980's when the two churches merged.

“There was a lot of discussion around that - why?” St. Simon Cyrene’s original member Madeline Gamble said.

Like Gamble, fellow members wondered why an all-white parish wanted to merge with an all-black one.

St. Luke's parish was declining, so a merge would mean growth.

Some St. Simon members were worried about their identity and the place they always had called home but would eventually come to support the move.

“Naturally, it came out that as a black church, and that's what we were and we would be losing; we were the only black Episcopal church in Rochester,” Gamble said.

“The race difference didn't bother me, it didn't bother a lot of people I don’t think,” Toni Burr said.

“A lot of the culture had rubbed off on me and I felt very comfortable in that culture,” John Burr said.

John and Toni Burr are original parishioners of St. Simon Cyrene. John is a deacon and was one of the few white members at St. Simon Cyrene.

Toni has been a lifetime member.

The two married almost 20 years ago.

Parishioners say race never played a major role in the merge which took place in 1987.

The churches held their first service together on January 10, 1988.

“I remember that service really well,” Gamble said. “It was a sense of anticipation but also a sense of joy.”

Bishop Prince Singh is the first person of color called to his position in the Episcopal Diocese.

Singh says “Two Saints” is a reflection of a church living what it teaches.

“There's a lot to be grateful for because while there are so many things wrong with the world it is really wonderful to look around and see that there are divisions that are being healed, divides that are being restored,” Singh said.

Original members of the St. Luke parish were in support of the merge.

“I really like the idea of knowing people from all different backgrounds. It's been a big plus in my life,” Carol Dundas said. “I've met so many different people."

Together, the church is still evolving, while walking a path in harmony.

“The only unchangeable thing in the whole world is change. Everything changes, we change, our community changes, hopefully we all grow from that,” John Burr said.

Sunday, the church honored Absalom Jones, an abolitionist and the first African-American man ordained priest in the Episcopal church.

Jones challenged the norm, something church members say they can relate to.

The church continues its celebration Sunday, February 24th.