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Deaconess left footprints of a saint on Georgia soil

April 8, 2018

BRUNSWICK, Ga. (AP) — Her lifelong journey of service to others ended more than 70 years ago, but Anna Alexander left behind the footprints of a saint on the sandy soil of Glynn and McIntosh counties.

Quite literally. Anna’s calling as a teacher and spiritual leader kept her on the move in the late 19th century, a life on unceasing service to her God and His people. From her mission church in rural western Glynn County to her teaching duties in Darien, Anna walked much of the way, rowing by boat when waterways made it practical or necessary. She walked also to Brunswick to keep regular appointments with her spiritual mentors at St. Athanasius Episcopal Church in Brunswick.

This life of unselfish devotion did not go unnoticed in her own time, and her legacy of sacrifice shines still brighter today. Known then as Deaconess Alexander, the daughter of former slaves is now recognized as a Saint of Georgia by the state’s Episcopal Diocese. Recognized in 1998, her Feast Day in the Georgia Episcopal Church is Sept. 24.

Anna’s achievements earned still broader recognition in January. America’s Presiding Bishop, the most Rev. Michael Curry, lauded this homegrown saint during an Episcopal retreat at Honey Creek in Camden County. It was fitting, perhaps, that the nation’s first African-American Presiding Bishop was on hand to applaud the first black Deaconess.

High praise, indeed. But the humble deaconess herself most likely would be more pleased with a less distinguished testimony to her legacy. Folks still gather regularly to worship at Good Shepherd Episcopal Church, the very church she founded in 1894. In addition to bi-weekly services at the church at 780 Pennick Road, the property at Good Shepherd includes the schoolhouse built at her behest and its frugal second floor apartment that Anna called home.

Anna was born sometime after the Civil War, the last of James “Aleck” and Daphne Alexander’s 11 children. Her year of birth is something of a moving target, but she was most likely born in either 1878 or 1881. Her parents were enslaved by St. Simons Island plantation owner Pierce Mease Butler. Aleck, a personal servant to Butler, learned to read and write despite the prohibition of literacy among slaves.

At the end of the Civil War, the newly-freed Alexanders moved to the black community of Pennick, where Aleck became a carpenter and community leader. Young Anna made the most of the limited educational opportunities available to blacks at the time.

She started teaching as a young woman, beginning at a public school in the Pennick community. Later, she taught alongside her sister Mary at a school in Darien that was established by St. Cyprian’s Episcopal Church. By this time, Anna also had developed a connection with St. Athanasius Episcopal Church in Brunswick. In 1894, with encouragement from St. Athanasius’s Rev. J.J. Perry, Anna founded the mission church in Pennick that would later become Good Shepherd. She presided over outdoor services in the beginning.

Still teaching, Anna walked and rowed 40 miles round trip between her school children in Darien during the week and her flock in Pennick on weekends. In 1897, Anna moved briefly to Lawrenceville, Virginia, where she both taught and attended teachers college at St. Paul’s Normal and Industrial School.

She returned home around 1901 to find that the mission at Pennick had stagnated in her absence. It flourished upon her return. Anna worked as a seamstress to support herself, and more. In 1902 she bought the property on which her brother Charles would oversee construction of the first church. A school also was built on the site.

In the one-room schoolhouse, Anna taught children to read using the Episcopalian Book of Common Prayer and the Bible. This African-American woman’s exhausting commitment to the church did not go unnoticed by the white clergy of the time.

In 1907, Episcopal Bishop Cleland Kinloch Nelson consecrated her as a deaconess, a designation for women ordained and directed to serve God through caring for “the sick, the afflicted and the poor.” Nelson praised Deaconess Alexander as a “devout, godly and respected colored woman.”

That same year, however, a new Bishop of the Georgia Diocese snubbed African Americans, silencing their voice in church matters and virtually cutting black churches off from state financial support.

If the church itself stopped giving, Deaconess Alexander and her Pennick church did not. Donating precious loose change, her congregation was consistently more giving toward charitable causes than any other in the diocese. In 1923, for example, the folks at Good Shepherd donated proportionately more money than all others to victims of a massive earthquake in Japan.

Also during this era, the existing church building at Good Shepherd was erected in 1928. Deaconess Alexander also crusaded throughout the hard times of the depression for government and private assistance to aid folks struggling in poverty, both black and white. In 1936, the very state bishop who had ostracized her and other blacks would laud the deaconess for her tireless service.

Deaconess Alexander died in 1947, ironically the same year the state diocese first invited blacks back to participate in the state convention. One wonders if the Deaconess and her congregation would have noticed. She spent a lifetime answering to a much higher authority.

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