A History of St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church
In 1897, St. Paul’s Church (then called Warwick Parish) in downtown Newport News, Virginia, established a mission for African-American Episcopalians. It was called St. Paul’s Mission and the congregation functioned without the services of a full time priest. Having no building of their own, the congregation met on the upper floor of Columba Opera House on Twenty-Third Street and Madison Avenue.
In October of 1897 the Rev. Joseph F. Mitchell arrived in Newport News to become the mission’s first vicar. In a report written by Fr. Mitchell, he said, “We are struggling to build a Chapel to hold our services in.” “But before this can be done, we will need $250 to $300 from friends of the work.”
St. Paul’s Mission was assisted greatly by the Ven. James S. Russell, who had been appointed by the Bishop of the Diocese as the “Archdeacon for Colored Work.” Archdeacon Russell later wrote in a report concerning Vicar Mitchell, “I preached to a very encouraging congregation in the new mission at Newport News, under the rectorship of the Rev. Joseph F. Mitchell. Rev. Mitchell has made a desperate struggle to build up a work in Newport News and he deserves the sympathy and support of all who are interested in the Church work among colored people of the south. With a reasonable amount of money he will succeed, and I do most earnestly pray that he may be given the money he needs for his work in this prosperous and growing city.”
Growth was a struggle, in 1897 the mission had seventeen communicants and by 1902 that number had grown only to nineteen. Archdeacon Solomon Russell continued to encourage and solicit support for St. Paul’s Mission stating in a correspondence that, “steps are being taken to erect a chapel costing about $1000…. For with a good church building in this rapidly growing city, the outlook for our Church work is exceedingly bright.”
There is a scarcity of historical data that exists between the years 1910 and 1940. The church continued to experience its reserved but steady growth. A succession of eight vicars served the mission during that period. In 1924, when the Rev. Adolphus A. Birch became the vicar, the mission was renamed St. Augustine’s in honor of the great African saint, St. Augustine, Bishop of Hippo (354-430).
The mission functioned without a full-time priest until 1924. In 1930 the building moved to its present location on Marshall Avenue at Twenty-Sixth Street. In 1942 the building was enhanced with a brick veneer, and further renovations were made in 1952.
Later in 1930, when the Rev. J.J. Posey was the Vicar, the church building was moved from its location on Twenty-fourth Street to its present site on the corner of Marshall Avenue at Twenty-sixth Street.
During these early years in the life of St. Augustine’s Church it should be acknowledged that African American congregations suffered the same injustices within the Diocese as reflected in the larger society- they were separate and treated unequally. Black congregations had a separate Convocation and its priests were educated in segregated seminaries (Bishop Payne Divinity School in Petersburg). The African American Convocation existed with a life of its own, far removed from the majority life and decision making of the diocese.
In 1942, under the rectorship of the Rev. Charles H. Dukes as Vicar, the church building was enhanced with a brick veneer that was not completed until 1944, due to the war.
The Rev. Lloyd M. Alexander was the minister in 1952 when additional renovations to the building were required. The church was remodeled, painted, and new pews were installed. A dedication service was held and the Rev. Richard B. Martin, of Grace Church in Norfolk celebrated.
In March of 1959, St. Augustine’s launched a Building Fund campaign with the goal of building an entirely new physical plant. At a loyalty Day dinner on April 14th, $52,955 in pledges was received. A groundbreaking ceremony was held on October 28, with the Rt. Rev. David S. Rose, then Bishop Coadjutor of the Diocese, and many clergy and friends were in attendance. On September 11, 1960 the cornerstone was laid and while the church was being constructed, the congregation met for worship at Cook Brothers Funeral Home.
The building was finally completed in 1962 and on December 2nd the Rt. Rev. George P. Gunn, Bishop of the Diocese was present for a service of dedication. The new St. Augustine’s is of a contemporary design. The nave of the church will seat more than two hundred and fifty persons. The parish house consists of an adjacent fully equipped kitchen, choir room and a supply room for the Outreach program. On the second floor are offices for the Rector, parish administrator, Sunday School, meeting and storage spaces.
In 1965, the Rev. Robert C.S. Powell became the Vicar. Under his leadership the congregation began a long concerted effort to become a self-sufficient parish. St. Augustine’s reduced substantially it mortgages on the building and the amount of money it accepted from the Diocese to balance its budget. But in late 1969, Fr. Powell resigned to take a position with the National Council of Churches in New York City and the Rev. R. Scott Copeland, a non-parochial priest, led the parish, during its search process for a new priest.
In June of 1970, Mr. Ralph E. Haines, III was assigned as Lay Reader in charge at St. Augustine’s. Mr. Haines was a graduate of a non Episcopal Seminary, so after addition study he was ordained to the deaconate and then ordained to the Priesthood in December 18, 1971 in services held at St. Augustine’s.
In February of 1974 at the Annual Council of the Diocese, the long road to independence was finally realized, when over fifty members of the congregation traveled to Williamsburg to witness the acceptance of St. Augustine’s into full parish status. December 31, 1973 marked the last time St. Augustine’s accepted financial support from the Diocese.
In December 28, 1976, the church retired the mortgage to the property and a festive Eucharist was held on May 8,1977 where the Rt. Rev. David S. Rose, Bishop of Southern Virginia consecrated the building to the service of God in the world.
The journey of faith began with Fr. Mitchell and seventeen faithful communicants in 1897 had finally come to fruition. St. Augustine’s has always been deeply committed to a ministry of outreach, especially to the southeast community in which it is located. In the 1970s the church housed two of the three Head Start classes in Newport News. In the 1980s the parish operated a thrift shop known as The Thrifty Saint. Today, St. Augustine’s operates a feeding program that serves complete meals to between 80 and 150 needy people three Saturdays a month. In addition, the church is now the site of a very active Narcotics Anonymous program that meets every weekday in the parish hall. The church holds an annual Diaper Drive for pampers for children and adults with incontinence to aid the deserving and underprivileged in our neighborhood. And St. Augustine’s sponsors a “Back to School Drive” where the congregation donates book bags filled with school supplies to support the educational needs of the children in our neighborhood.
The faithful that began as St. Paul’s Mission and we now as St. Augustine’s holds this vision for our work as Christ’s disciples:
“St. Augustine’s will be a place where ALL are welcomed.”
"We are committed to being God’s eyes, hands, and feet to carry out his love throughout the world.”
"The East End community will be empowered to be productive citizens and recognize God’s plan for their lives.”
This parish has been blessed with seventeen strong and capable rectors. Below is a list of the rectors, up to the present.
The Rev. Joseph F. Mitchell, 1897-1903
The Rev. Henry J. Geiger, 1907-1909
The Rev. E. H. Hamilton, 1910-1913
The Rev. Byron E. Floyd, 1913-1919
The Rev. J. T. McDuffie, 1920-1923
The Rev. Adolphus A. Birch, 1924-1928
The Rev. J.J. Posey, 1928-1932
The Rev. Julian F. Dozier, 1932-1934
The Rev. Charles S. Sedgwick, 1935-1936
The Rev. Charles H. Dukes, 1937-1943
The Rev. Theodore R. Gibson, 1944-1945
The Rev. George E. Harper, 1946-1949
The Rev. Lloyd M. Alexander, 1950-1965
The Rev. Robert C.S. Powell, 1966-1969
The Rev. R. Scott Copeland, 1969-1970
The Rev. Ralph E. Haines, III, 1970-2011
The Rev. Terry D. Edwards, 2013-