History of Christ Church, Part 1

Tuesday, February 3, 2015 - by Chuck Hamilton
Christ Church exterior
Christ Church exterior

Christ Church (William Clendenin Robertson Memorial) was born in 1900 along with the twentieth century, as a mission from St. Paul’s.


Reasons for organizing


First and foremost was that Episcopalians in the Old East Side (Georgia Avenue to East End, or Central, Avenue) wanted a church closer to home than St.

Paul’s Episcopal on Pine Street.  A contributing factor to this was reportedly the lack of sufficient hitching posts for horses and buggies there.

 Second, several parishioners at St. Paul’s felt aggrieved over the ill-treatment of, Dr. William Montrose Pettis, a Southerner who had been rector since 1892, by many of the Northerners in the parish.  Dr. Pettis had left St. Paul’s for Grace Church in West Washington, D.C., and shortly after his replacement, Fr. Frederick Goodman, arrived, some one hundred parishioners applied to the diocese to form another parish.

 Third, many of these dissatisfied parishioners wanted a more, High Church worship.  According to St. Paul’s centennial history, the services at first were Low Church just like St. Paul’s, and the change did not take place until several years after the parish began.  However, the fact that the parish included in its design for its church building a chapel specifically dedicated to “Our Lady” weighs heavily against that testimony.


The three wings of Anglicanism


High Church, in the Episcopal Church and the rest of the Anglican Communion, refers to worship services, spirituality, and theology which are more traditional ritualistically and more Catholic, for which this wing of the church is also called Anglo-Catholic.

 Low Church refers to worship services, spirituality, and theology in the Anglican Communion which are less formally ritualistic and more classically Protestant.  At one time, their dominant theology was heavily Calvinist, and they are also called Evangelical.

 Broad Church refers to the trend in the Anglican Communion which first arose in the mid-17th century of de-emphasizing stress on forms of worship and theology which had driven the Anglo-Catholics and Evangelicals of the Church of England (the Mother Church of the Anglican Communion) into often violent conflict.  A large motivation for this was that its adherents were freethinkers bordering on deism.  Members of this wing are also called Latitudinarians.


Christ Church begins


The first meeting of the vestry was at the home of Mr. C. A. Lyerly at 541 McCallie Avenue, chaired by Prof. John Roy Baylor of Grant University*, on 8 December 1900.  At this time the vestry chose to call William C. Robertson of Nashville as rector.  Not very long before, Fr. Robertson had been at Grace Memorial Episcopal for six months in 1898 when it was in South Chattanooga (moved to Highland Park in 1907, then Brainerd in 1941), then was founding priest of Thankful Memorial Episcopal, which started several years earlier as a Sunday school, serving for two years.

 *Founded as Chattanooga University in 1886 and changing its name in 1889, Grant University became University of Chattanooga in 1907.

 In February 1901, the vestry contracted with the Masonic Hall (at the corner of Cherry and 7th Streets) for a venue in which to hold services.  They had first considered the University Chapel, but decided against that due to a smallpox scare at the school.

 Fr. Robertson led the celebration of the parish’s first Mass at the hall that Ash Wednesday, 20 February 1901.

 By its first parish meeting on 31March 1902, Christ Church had purchased the home of Judge Lewis Shepherd at 543 McCallie Avenue on the corner with Douglas Street in the neighborhood then known as Long’s Addition.  As a lawyer after retiring from the bench, Judge Shepherd worked on the right side of some of the most famous cases of his day, three of the most notable being the Ed Johnson case in 1906, the Leo Frank appeal, and the so-called Melungeon case regarding the Hampton site on Moccasin Point.

 The house lay across Douglas Street from what was then First District School and later the second Public Library.  The parish held its first service there that summer.  There were at this time 265 members with 149 communicants attending services at the small chapel in the house.

 Incidentally, the street address of the church, as opposed to its mailing address, always was, is now, and ever shall be 543 McCallie Avenue.  Unless, of course, the City of Chattanooga renumbers the street.


The Robertson years


In 1904, Christ Church parishioners started a Sunday school in Rossville, Georgia.  The next year the Sunday school members moved into the newly built St. Timothy’s Chapel.  Its mission was to serve the impoverished residents of what was then called Black Bottom, the low land along Chattanooga Creek north of the stateline and that adjacent to it.  St. Timothy’s served as a precursor to the In-As-Much Mission established in 1920, which was sponsored by all Episcopal churches in the Chattanooga area.

 The cornerstone for the present church building was laid 28 October 1906, dedicating the church to the Holy Trinity.  The congregation had grown to 400 members with 265 communicants.

 The parish celebrated its first mass in the new building on Palm Sunday, 12 April, 1908, which included a chapel off the narthex dedicated to Our Lady, which had an altar donated to the memory of Elizabeth Theone Hawk by her parents.  The high altar had been transferred from the chapel in the Shepherd home.  At the other end of the narthex was a baptistery.

 In Lent of 1913, the parish received a beautiful high altar from an Anglo-Catholic parish in the Diocese of Ohio which was merging with another struggling parish in that city.  It was installed in time for Holy Week services.

 Christ Church helped organize St. Mary the Virgin mission in 1916, and at first the new mission met in rented spaces.  After purchasing land on E. 8th Street between Douglas and E (University) Streets, St. Mary’s congregation held Sunday morning services in the Lady Chapel at 8 am and joined Christ Church for Solemn Evensong Sunday evenings. 

 Fr. Robertson helped Jesse Tyler established St. Gabriel’s Convent at 636 McCallie Avenue (one lot over from the southeast corner of McCallie Avenue and University Street), on the feast of Corpus Christi in 1916.  On 30 May 1918, Mother Mary Gabriel (the former Jesse Tyler) and Sister Mary Joseph professed life vows at Christ Church, at which time the Sisters of the Tabernacle was founded.  At their core, the Sisters were devoted to adoration of the Blessed Sacrament as well as works of charity and service, working with both Christ Church and Mary the Virgin (in Chattanooga).  They also provided a place or religious retreat for the ladies of the parish, served on the Altar Guild, and hosted parish breakfasts after the 8:00 am Sunday Mass.

 The Christ Church Service Guild, composed of the entire congregation, adults and children, came into being in 1920.  The guild had a Missions Department, a Social Services Department, a Religious Education Department, and a Parish Guilds Department.  This service guild created a venereal disease clinic in the women’s section of the county jail, one of the first of its kind, and a sanitarium for drug addicts and alcoholics (the Anti-Narcotic League of Tennessee), also one of the first of its kind at 209 E (University) Street.  Other activities included working with inmates in the city and county jails, residents of the county poor house, and patients at Erlanger Hospital and Pine Breeze.

 Also in 1920, Christ Church established St. Joseph’s Mission at 901 Whiteside (now Broad) Street in South Chattanooga, led by Brother Mark, P.O.H.G., on the southwest corner of that street with W. 24th Street.  By midsummer, however, the mission had pulled up stakes and relocated to 227 Oak Street, not far from the mother church.  Fr. Robertson expressed doubt about its survival at the time and his doubts proved correct.

 Christ Church’s acolytes officially became the Order of St. Vincent on 22 January 1922.

 In the early spring of 1923, Fr. Robertson and his family took an extended leave of absence due to the serious illness of a family member in Boston.  While there, he served as a supply priest at the Church of the Advent.  When that parish called him as rector the following year, Robertson tendered his resignation to the Christ Church vestry.


Years of high expectation


In the fall of 1923, the parish began the process of buying the home of Capt. C.A. Lyerly next door to the church at 541 McCallie Avenue.  It became the St. Lawrence Parish Hall and the church rectory, as well as home to an order about which little is known, the Sisters of the Poor, meaning there were now two orders of nuns connected to Christ Church.

 In 1925, the Sisters of the Tabernacle organized a daughter house, St. Saviour’s Convent, in Bridgeport, Connecticut.  The order was offered a former convent attached to the Church of the Nativity there, which it accepted.  With the permission of both dioceses, the Mother House of the order and its novitiate was transferred to the new location.  Sister Mary Julian became Novice Mistress at the same time.

 On 5 May 1927, the parish purchased the lot and frame residence of Mrs. Laura Whipps and Mrs. Hattie Hart directly in the rear of Christ Church, presumably that upon which the later Fox Parish Hall was built, though the hall came much later.

 Sister Julian, Novice Mistress of the Sisters of the Tabernacle, died 18 June 1928.

 Mother Mary Gabriel, superior of the Sisters of the Tabernacle, died 11 August 1929.  The two brass crosses atop the tabernacles of the side altars were given in her memory by the sisters of the order.  Among the many priests commemorating Mother Gabriel was former parishioner Fr. Jerome Harris, then serving as associate rector of St. Ignatius in New York City.  She was succeeded by Sister Mary Michael.

 In March 1930, the construction company of Louis Bull began renovations based on plans designed by the firm of Cram and Ferguson in the style of the English Gothic Revival.  Some of the plans had to be altered, most notably the choir loft which was substituted for the lengthening of the nave recommended by Ralph Adams Cram.  The work was complete before the end of 1930, and included a widening of the high altar, a new reredos (paneling behind the altar), columns, arches, paneling on the rear and front walls of the nave, the rose window behind the high altar, and two sides chapels dedicated to St. Mary and St. Joseph.

 The parish held a three-day festival, 2-5 November 1930, to celebrate the finishing of the renovations of the church’s interior.

 Mother Michael of the Sisters of the Tabernacle died 23 July 1931.  Upon her death, the order amalgamated with the Sisters of the Transfiguration in Glendale, Ohio, with whom Sister Mary Joseph went to live.  Sister Mary Anna entered the Roman Catholic Church after a stay with her family, while the sole remaining novice became a deacon and moved west.  What became of the postulants, if any, was not recorded.  The Associates, of course, dissolved.  No more than five sisters total had ever professed life vows.

 Also in 1931, the Greek Orthodox congregation that ultimately became the Church of the Annunciation began meeting in Christ Church once a month for Mass.


Lean years


The parish turned over St. Lawrence Hall (and rectory) to First National Bank in 1933.  The rector, Fr. Reginald Mallet (uncle of Fr. Bill Murchison), and the Sisters of the Poor had to find other homes. 

 The same year, Christ Church, which had started its life as a full parish, reverted to mission status.  Up to that point, the parish had been the only full parish besides St. Paul’s in the Chattanooga area.

 As reported by the senior warden at the annual parish meeting on 15 January 1934, the vestry had in the previous year chosen the Feast of Corpus Christi as the patronal feast day of Christ Church.  Its members had also chosen Trinity Sunday a day of special observance due to the dedication on our church’s cornerstone.

 The year 1936 found Christ Church under the Chattanooga Plan formulated by the Diocese of Tennessee in 1934, in which all non-sufficient Episcopal churches in the area shared as rector the incumbent at St. Paul’s.  Grace Memorial and Thankful Memorial had had that same relationship since the early 1900’s, St. Luke’s in Cleveland since its founding, and the Chapel of the Good Shepherd on Lookout Mountain also.  Bishop Maxon suggested closing the now “aided parish” but the rectors at St. Paul’s, first Fr. Charles W. Sheerin then Fr. Thorne Sparkman, went to great lengths to avoid doing so.

 For Easter 1942, the senior warden, Larry B. West, donated the wood paneling along the side walls from the altar of St. Joseph on the Epistle (right) side to opening to the narthex and altar of St. Mary the Virgin on the Gospel (left) side to the door to the tower.  That had apparently not been part of the renovations of 1930.

 In 1944, after two years of the vicarage of Fr. George Fox, Christ Church paid off its mortgage on the building.  Bishop Maxon, now the Ordinary, led the service consecrating the parish and its building, assisted by Fr. Sparkman, as Christ Church (William Clendenin Robertson Memorial) on 22 May that year.

 In July that same year, Fr. Harvey Bullock, another native son sent to the priesthood, gifted Christ Church with a stone for its altar complete with a cavity to contain relics.  It had a cross engraved in the center and at each of the four corners.  Those in charge decided the stone was too heavy for the altar and placed it in the priest’s sacristy, from whence it eventually vanished.

 The Episcopal Church’s student group at University of Chattanooga, the Canterbury Club, was established in 1949, at first meeting in the Recreation Room (now the Choir Room).

 Christ Church finally regained full parish status in 1955.


Later years


The new parish house opened in 1957, named Fox Hall in honor of the priest (Fr. George Fox) who helped the drive to pay off the mortgage and led Christ Church back to parish status.

 In 1960, St. Mary the Virgin became a parish and moved to new quarters in Alton Park, upon which its relationship with Christ Church ended.

 Christ Church acquired the property at 250 Oak Street, one lot over from the corner, in back of the church in 1966 from a Mr. Wilkerson.  At the end of the next year, 1967, it purchased the lot at 252 Oak Street on the corner of Douglas Street from UTC.

 The parish celebrated its seventy-fifth anniversary on Saturday, 30 October 1976, during the rectorship of Fr. Christopher Morley.

 Renewal and renovation of the entire building was complete in 1981.

 In 1982, Fr. Don Johnson and Christ Church assisted in founding the Community Kitchen, which it hosted serving lunches to the homeless in Fox Hall.  The kitchen moved to its current home on E. 11th Street in 1986.

 Christ Church purchased what is now the Canterbury Building in 1984, originally two townhouses side-by-side built by the Van Cleves, who were parish members.  The church office moved into the first floor of 663 Douglas Street, with the first floor of 661 Douglas Street designated as the future home of UTC’s Canterbury Club.

 In 1985, Dr. Jim Greasby of UTC and Christ Church started the Chattanooga Bach Choir using the nave of Christ Church as its practice hall.

 Richards, Fowkes, and Company installed a brand new organ in the nave in 1996.

 Canterbury House, four apartments in the newly renovated building of the same name, and the Episcopal University Center, a section of Fox Hall with couches and lamps especially designed for relaxation, opened their doors in spring 1997.

 In 1990, the Episcopal Metropolitan Ministry moved into the first floor of 661 Douglas Street in the Canterbury Building, from which it operated until transferring to its current location at 1201 McCallie Avenue in 2007.  Now Chattanooga MetMin, it began life sponsored by the Episcopal churches of Southeast Tennessee in 1979 and became ecumenical in 2009.

 In 1995, St. Mary the Virgin abandoned its building and merged with Thankful Memorial, with several members from St. Mary’s moving to the former mother parish of Christ Church.  Both parishes were begun as missions by Fr. Robertson.  Upon the merger, the parish house became St. Mary the Virgin Hall, while the combined parish retained the name Thankful Memorial.

 The Memorial Garden was initiated in 1999, created with an anonymous donation.

 Christ Church (William Clendenin Robertson Memorial) celebrated its centennial in 2001, led by then rector Mother Jocelyn Bell, assisted by Fr. Harry Lawrence.

 In 2002, parish member Leasty Chapman and her husband Dan installed twenty-two beautiful stained glass windows in Christ Church, each of them designed by Mrs. Chapman’s mother, Evangeline LeNoir.  The windows project started out as repair of the rose window above the high altar, plus the discovery of a set of two-by-two foot panels of Gospel scenes which are believed to have come from Germany and to be over a century old.  These were purchased by parishioners during the incumbency of Fr. Harry Lawrence (1986-1988).

 In November 2002, the Chattanooga Pipe Band celebrated a Kirkin’ o’ the Tartans ceremony at Christ Church in gratitude for being allowed to use its space for rehersals.

 The university ministry, now reimagined as Project Canterbury in conjunction with the Episcopal Church’s sister communion, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, relaunched in 2007, initially based at St. Paul’s on Pine Street.  In 2012, PC, as it is usually referred to, moved into the renovated space of the Canterbury Building formerly occupied by Metropolitan Ministry before its move to McCallie Avenue.   After eating dinner in Fox Hall, the group holds services Wednesday nights in the nave of Christ Church.

 Also in 2012, the church building proper inaugurated its latest addition: the Herbert J. Peck Memorial Loo.

Christ Church celebrates Low (said) Mass according to Rite One of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer at 8:00 am every Sunday morning and Solemn High (sung) Mass according to Rite Two at 10:30 am.  Sunday School falls in between.  The Episcopalian and Lutheran students at UTC and other area schools (as well as anyone else interested: all are welcome) hold Eucharist every Wednesday at 8:30 pm according to Rite Three.  A centering prayer group meets at 6:30 pm on Tuesday, but that is currently in hiatus.  The choir practices Wednesdays at 6:30 pm.

Parish members continue to be active in the community, volunteering at the Community Kitchen, Food Bank, Habitat for Humanity, Northside Neighborhood House, Met Min, and other places. 

On Tuesday late afternoons, students from Project Canterbury, often with the assistance of parish members, make burritos, hot dogs, or other handheld food to distribute to the homeless later that evening. 

Throughout the year, the parish hosts concerts in its nave by the Chattanooga Bach Choir, Voci Virilli, and the Tennessee Chamber Chorus.  Without exception, all the singers have commented that the acoustics in the nave are the best they’ve ever seen, or rather heard.

Chuck Hamilton


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