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.

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